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The Confusing Marketing Campaign for ‘Atlas Shrugged’ — And the Insecurity of Conservative Entertainment

The first half of Atlas Shrugged did not exactly demonstrate that there is a giant untapped pool of Objectivists, or at least, people who are so bought into the dream of business success that they’re valorizing withdrawal from society, who are not being served by the entertainment industry. And the ads for the second half of the movie, due to come out around Election Day this year, don’t seem to be doing much new to turn on that audience, if it in fact exists, or failing that, preaching to the unconverted to make a buck:

Ultimately, there’s just a limit to the extent to which you can get people to consume entertainment by telling them that it’s good for them. It was true for Red Tails, which did only okay box office — it hasn’t paid off its production costs, much less started eating into its advertising budget. And I think it’s true here, too. I will probably go see Act of Valor, that movie starring a bunch of Navy SEALs that’s being hyped by conservatives as the second coming because the action sequences look reasonably cool, I’m curious about how the non-actors will turn out, and it’s February, people — it’s this or The Vow. But it would be very, very heavy lifting to get me to see Atlas Shrugged were it not for my professional interest in it, and telling me that it supports things that are an anathama to me are not a way to get me into the theater and maybe have my mind changed.

This goes back again to that eternal question of whether you trust your values to be compelling. Conservatives, I think, tend not to trust that their values are going to win out in the wider market. There’s a reason you see niche releases of heavily Christian movies while a company like Walden Media focuses on something like the Narnia adaptations, which clothe Christian values in a heavy coat of familiar fantasy storytelling, a tactic that lets the faithful tune in for a reaffirmation of their faith while letting everyone else get excited about Tilda Swinton dressed up in a variety of special effects. It’s a bait and switch that lets some audiences ignore the message rather than making it go down easier.

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Something like Avatar, by contrast, is much more confident. All of the special effects in the movie are aimed at making the Na’vi look cool — gorgeous trees! flying dinosaurs! — and amping up the danger posed by the RDA Corporation, whether by giving them bigger, badder earth-moving equipment or fighting exoskeletons. Now, James Cameron is not exactly a retiring or insecure filmmaker, but I appreciated that the movie didn’t really give viewers an out. Even if you didn’t walk out of the movie a committed environmentalist, for the couple of hours you spent in the theater, it was totally clear who the villains were and why they were so destructive.

And I think that contrast is why you often see a conservative response to media that’s oriented towards shutting things down. What happens if straight folks play as gay characters in video games and then, in evidence that gayness isn’t catching or corrosive, return happily to their real-life relationships? What happens if kids hear a single brief obscenity on a television broadcast, or see a human nipple, and return to their lives unscarred? Conservatives don’t want these test cases because they don’t want to see the results, which would suggest that the narratives they’re selling aren’t compelling or coherent. Similarly, sticking with a niche market isn’t proof that you’re oppressed — if Mel Gibson can turn torture porn like The Passion of the Christ into a hit, it ought to be easier to sell things that aren’t so much with the anti-Semitism and the public beatings — it’s a sign you’re not confident enough to venture out and sell people on the quality of your narrative.