The Deal-Making Process: Playing the Long Game

The deal-making process can be full of twists and turns—at least for the deals worth doing. Take inspiration from a Hollywood producer who landed two agreements after a half-century of negotiations.

By — on / BATNA

deal-making process

Do you have regrets about the deals that got away? If so, you might be newly motivated by the deal-making process of famed Hollywood movie and television producer Albert S. Ruddy. For 50 years he pursued two pet film projects—each of which finally led to a negotiated agreement and is coming to fruition.

A Deal-Making Process Sours

In 1972, fresh off his success launching The Godfather, Ruddy set his sights on novelist Ayn Rand’s 1,000-plus-page magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. In the novel, Rand laid out her philosophy of objectivism, which promotes capitalism and rational self-interest.

Warned that Rand would be a tough sell, Ruddy told the New York Times in 2015 that he tried to win her over with charm and flattery. According to Ruddy, Rand was at first eager to let him produce Atlas Shrugged. But that changed after she insisted on having veto power over every frame of the film.

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“I said, look, Ayn, the language of film is different,” Ruddy told the Los Angeles Times. Noting that the novel’s hero “says good-bye to America for 60 pages,” Ruddy said, “In a book it can be charming, but in film you look foolish.”

With Rand continuing to insist on full creative control, the deal-making process reached a dead end. Ruddy says he told Rand he would wait for her to “drop dead” and then make the film as he saw fit.

Rand retorted, “Then I’ll put it in my will, the one person who can’t get [the film rights] is you,” Ruddy told the New York Times.

A Long and Winding Road

After her talks with Ruddy collapsed, Rand began scripting a TV miniseries adaptation of Atlas Shrugged but didn’t finish before her death in 1982. She left her estate to a longtime student, who in 1992 sold a 15-year option on the film rights to the novel to New Jersey entrepreneur and objectivist John Aglialoro for $1 million.

Aglialoro tried numerous times to produce the film, purchasing extensions on his option. Ruddy got involved in 1999 on an Atlas Shrugged miniseries for TV network TNT, but the project stalled.

A husband-and-wife production team, Howard and Karen Baldwin, optioned the film rights and commissioned a script with actress Angelina Jolie tentatively attached as the female lead. But in 2006, those plans collapsed, too, due to creative differences with Aglialoro, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In March 2010, Aglialoro had just three months to begin filming Atlas Shrugged before his rights expired. Working on a shoestring budget, he had the film shot with a first-time director and cast of unknowns in just a few weeks. The film sank like a stone at the box office.

Determined to do better, Ruddy finally managed to secure the rights to Atlas Shrugged from Aglialoro, the New York Times reported in 2015. More than 40 years after his failed negotiation with Rand, Ruddy planned a version of the novel that he hoped to sell to a streaming service such as Netflix.

Another Long Deal-Making Process

There the trail of Atlas Shrugged adaptations runs cold—at least for now. But as he entered his nineties, Ruddy wasn’t resting on his laurels. As it turns out, during the many decades he was pursuing Atlas Shrugged, the producer was chasing another elusive project: a script called Cry Macho, the story of a former rodeo star who goes on a mission to save another man’s son.

In an article for Deadline, Michael Cieply writes that Ruddy had been trying to get the film made for at least 46 years. Big Hollywood names—from Roy Scheider to Burt Lancaster to Pierce Brosnan to Arnold Schwarzenegger—were attached at various points, but it always fell through.

And then, somehow, a miracle: Clint Eastwood directed and starred in the film, which was released by Warner Bros. and HBO Max on September 17, 2021.

Five Tips from a Great Negotiator

If you think Ruddy’s own life sounds like a Hollywood saga, you’re not the only one: A 10-episode miniseries about him called The Offer was in production in August 2021. But in a plot twist that might have been predicted, production was shut down, with rumors swirling that the actor playing Ruddy, Miles Teller, had contracted Covid-19. While we wait for the show to air, we can glean these principles of deal design from Ruddy’s negotiations:

  1. Charm isn’t everything. Though smooth talk and flattery may carry you far in the deal-making process, you’ll have to meet your partner’s substantive needs to reach a truly valuable deal.

  2. Know your limits. Ruddy understood that giving veto power over a film version of Atlas Shrugged could be a catastrophe. Wise negotiators search for value-creating tradeoffs but also recognize a deal breaker when they see one.

  3. Be willing to find a new partner. Ruddy pursued his goal not only by working with Rand but also by negotiating years later with another producer. We can all benefit from identifying various paths to our goals.

  4. Pursue multiple deals. Great producers don’t put all their eggs in one basket; they juggle numerous potential projects. Negotiators in all realms would be wise to adopt their strategy of diversifying—pursuing several deals rather than just one.

  5. Play the long game. Ruddy’s dogged tenacity over the course of many decades can inspire us all to not give up on a deal-making process that might just fulfill our dreams.

What elements of the deal-making process do you think often go overlooked?

Claim your FREE copy: BATNA Basics

Discover how to unleash your power at the bargaining table in this free special report, BATNA Basics: Boost Your Power at the Bargaining Table, from Harvard Law School.

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