Hollywood Shrugs but the Audience Doesn't

HERE'S WHAT YOU'LL HEAR: critics hate Atlas Shrugged, Part 1; that it’s amateur hour, with wooden acting, unknown, weak actors unable to handle the stilted dialogue, an incomprehensible story, made on a thread of a shoestring budget.

Here are the facts: Atlas Shrugged is one of the most successful books of all time. More than fifty years after its initial release, it is always in the top ten on Amazon. The executive producer tried for almost twenty years to make the film in Hollywood, but no one would finance it. After he made it with his own money, no one would distribute it. So, instead of the 3800 screens the animation film Rio fills, Atlas Shrugged had to settle for just 300. Yet this last weekend, it equaled the per-seat income of the other hit films. And though just 5% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes like the film, a whopping 85% of the audience does.

So what gives? I thought Hollywood was all about profit, not politics. If there was money to be made in bringing this book to film, why didn’t they jump at it? There may be several reasons, not all of which are damning to the L.A. Lefties.

Atlas Shrugged is an incredibly difficult book to adapt to screen. It’s over 1200 pages of long speeches on economics and government, not exactly the Bourne Identity. Many people have tried to adapt the book and have gotten waylaid by reverence for the source material. Instead of mining a good story out of it, they stayed true to the unwieldy plot. (This may have been a requirement by Rand’s estate.) But the movie is so true to the book that even the bad dialogue remains. The most obvious change should have been to update a key plot point—Rearden Metal, a new alloy that can support trains moving at 200 miles an hour—into mag-lev technology that doesn’t require rails at all. Or use it in aircraft or automotive construction. Whatever. But trains? Obama thinks high-speed rail is the future. Isn’t that reason enough to abandon it as the basis for a key point in the movie?

Another reason: Hollywood has a long history of hating corporate execs, and all the protagonists in the film are corporate execs. According to Hollywood, only union organizers, beleaguered government workers, and renegade journalists are heroic, and those types are relegated to the antagonist class in Atlas Shrugged. Even though Hollywood is such a corporate, union busting town that most films are shot in right-to-work locales now (try to find a depiction of New York that wasn’t shot in Toronto in the last twenty years), Hollywood still has this fictionalized account of itself that Atlas Shrugged exposes.

Another reason: Hollywood has reason to think audiences are brain-dead morons. Adam Sandler has been the most consistent money-maker in Hollywood for twenty years—which really only proves that we like movies and though we’d rather see a great movie, we’ll watch trash if that’s all there is. (Take that, American movie-goers; you go to these movies, after all, don’t you?)

Atlas Shrugged is a serious movie about serious (and timely) issues: the government picking winners and losers, bureaucrats making it impossible to build or run a business, hate-the-wealthy class warfare, a plummeting economy. No pratfalls, penis jokes, or bare breasts—how could the producers imagine that this movie would excite audiences? And yet it is, because we’re starving for films—no matter their production values—that say something important. The programmers at Turner Classic Movies know this: fifty, sixty, and seventy year old movies are still popular because they were made in an era when Hollywood still shared the values of the audience. But those times are long gone, destroyed with the anti-heroes of the 70s, the nihilism of the 80s, and the stupidity of the 90s until the present. (Hangover 2 is coming soon!)

No, Atlas Shrugged is not a great movie; it may not even be a very good one. The critics’ carping about production values, acting, and the screenplay are all valid. But while not being a great movie, Atlas Shrugged is a good movie about great ideas. Great as in important. I think you will be surprised at how many young people will absolutely love the movie and then tackle the book. I’ve no doubt that John Galt’s seventy page diatribe in the book will be severely truncated in the final film installment, perhaps losing most of its power, but if the movie serves to encourage people to read the book, and they have the discipline to wade through it, by the time they reach Galt’s radio rant, they will be, as I was, spellbound by his passion and irrefutable logic. And it very well may change their lives, as it did mine when I first read it thirty years ago.

Not a bad accomplishment for a movie.

eWriter Hocking Scores . . . Against Us

IT'S BECOMING INCREASINGLY OBVIOUS that wannabe authors can find success by self-publishing their works as e-books. There is perhaps no better example of that than 26-year-old Amanda Hocking, a writer of paranormal romances and thrillers. In 2009, Hocking wrote five 300-page novels targeted at the young adult market. In early 2010, she wrote three more -- one every two to four weeks.

Working from a $250 a month home that was all she could afford to rent, she fueled her writing with Red Bull, Sweet Tarts and cold cans of ravioli and SpaghettiOs. She wrote for twelve hours a day, every day, using the rest of her waking time to chase agents and publishers. She failed to find anyone interested in her work. By April 2010, Hocking had completed eight novels but still had no agent or publisher. She had accumulated "Hundreds. Maybe thousands," of rejections by that time, she said. "All my other friends had either gone to school or they had decent jobs or they were getting married or they were doing something. And I was still just sending off query letters."

Up to this point, she had only published stories on her blog. Now she decided to publish the novels via Amazon’s Kindle store, adding one more title along the line for a total of nine e-books. "I sold 50 books the first month,” she says. It picked up over the summer, then really took off in November (2010)." In February 2011, sales for Hocking, as evidenced by online proprietary accounts, were: Amazon (via its e-book portal, the Kindle): 227,515 units for all nine of her works, including about 60,000 for her best-selling novel Switched. Barnes & Noble (the Nook): 55,135 units. CreateSpace, an online "print on demand" service: 2,948 units.

That’s a total of 285,598 sales for the three platforms in February 2011 alone. Hocking says that total is about 100,000 copies shy of the real sales. That’s because the figures don’t include sales via Apple’s iBook, Kobo (Borders) and Sony’s eReader -- or sales of three other e-books she is selling in a different format through Barnes & Noble.

Hocking is almost certainly now the world's best-selling e-book author. She says that failing to get published by the conventional route worked to her advantage. "It allowed me to put a lot of books on the market quickly, so if people liked them, they could immediately buy another." Her best-selling Switched, the first novel in a trilogy, has already sold nearly a million copies. "I didn't expect it to be anything like this. I was hoping for around ten percent of where I am now," she said.

Hocking is now making millions self-publishing through Kindle and other platforms. Much of her success is based on volume sales. She sells her work for only $0.99 to $2.99 a pop. That means lower revenue, but she has literally no overhead. She just has to forfeit Amazon’s thirty percent cut and keeps the remaining seventy percent on $2.99 sales for herself. Earnings so far: Somewhere between $1.4 million and just shy of $2 million, she says, most of it in the last four months.

In mid-March, the book she believes to be her best, Switched, was the fifth-best-selling book on Kindle, behind mainstream authors John Locke, Lisa Gardner and Laura Hillenbrand. She had seven titles on the USA Today 150 best-sellers list, including Switched, at No. 28 after peaking at No. 16.

And the money doesn’t stop there. In late March, major publishing houses bid for the rights to four more novels by Hocking. Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins all dropped out as the price rose beyond $2 million for the English rights. St. Martin's Press eventually won out and is set to publish her four-book “Watersong” series, with the first book to be released in the fall of 2012. The publishing company, part of Macmillan, has not disclosed how much it paid for the rights. Further, Media Rights Capital, a prominent film financier and production company, has snapped up the rights to the Trylle Trilogy series by Hocking. The company plans to make three novels into two movies, and Terri Tatchell, a co-writer of the hit science-fiction film “District 9,” is already at work on the screenplays.

The three novels -- Switched, Torn and Ascend -- follow an emotionally damaged high school girl, Wendy Everly, who realizes that she may not be human. With the help of a boy, Finn Holmes, she discovers the mysterious world of Trylle, which is populated by beautiful trolls. Media Rights Capital did not disclose terms. The next step is to line up a distributor, which should not be difficult given the company’s close ties to studios like Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures.

Is Hocking now an outspoken advocate for self-publishing e-books? Heck no. She strongly defends the traditional publishing model. While her success was remarkable, it was exhausting. Hocking posted a defense of her pursuit of traditional publishers on her blog. "I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend forty hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation," she writes on the blog. She also cites book availability, increased quality of editing and career stability as factors in her decision. Nonetheless, the prolific writer who has written nineteen books so far promises her fans she hasn't abandoned self-publishing. "I have a few titles lined up this year yet to put out via the self-publishing. And I'll have more in the future."

(sourced from Southern Review of Books)

For my part, I will say just three things:

1) Obviously, ePublishing can work, if you can find a market. The volume sales model clearly works.

2) Hocking is fortunate to have found an audience, which must have something to do with the "young adult" label, which I eschew, because it usually means books in fact aimed at adults but written to a child's level. This is sad, because there is so much great literature out there for adults, but no one reads it anymore. Every adult woman I know read the Harry Potter series (with her kids, so she said), but few of these women have read Poe, who wrote adult thrillers; thrillers that still thrill, if you have the vocabulary and life experience to relate to him. If you don't, you will tell me Stephanie Meyer is a great writer, and that is incorrect and sad, in my view.

3) So, combining the above points: unless you're writing the kind of stories that can be fueled by Pop Tarts and Red Bull (sugar-high caloric brain bombs), and not well-thought-out, well-researched, and powerfully evocative books that cannot be regurgitated in two weeks, you will probably reach for the ePublishing brass ring in vain.

I don't intend to try. I intend, for good or bad, to write books for adults with adult ideas and, yes, even adult language (i.e., polysyllabic words). When I was a kid, as soon as I could read well, I wanted to read grown-up books. Now, it seems adults are retreating en masse from adult writing, which they often (rightly) identify as pornographic. But there are still adult-level books out that are not lascivious, and such books are infinitely more satisfying than YA books, just as the art of Carl Bloch is infinitely more satisfying than that of Andy Warhol. But such art must be sought out and savored, not read or listened to on CD in tandem with millions of others who want the fifth-grade level storytelling of Meyer and Rowling. Great art is often found in distant lands and you have to sacrifice to go there and find it. Bloch's masterworks are esconced in out-of-the-way churches in Sweden and Denmark. Warhol's is found on tee shirts.

You will decide which is inherently more valuable. Unfortunately, right now, you are deciding, at ninety-nine cents a pop, that "beautiful trolls" are great art and you're making books like Switched into bestsellers and blockbuster movies.

Walt Would Die

IN 2006, ABC/DISNEY SURPRISED THE WORLD by announcing a miniseries called The Path to 9/11 to be broadcast on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, based on several books, including, prominently, the 9/11 Commission Report. Opposition began immediately.

The project was maligned by the mainstream media and pressure was brought to bear because the miniseries took a hard look at the lack of response between the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 9/11 attacks. Remember, those years included the Khobar Towers, the U.S.S. Cole, and the African embassy bombings—and that’s just the attacks on American interests. During that time, all over the world, the jihadists were blowing things up, and Bill Clinton was asleep at the switch.

The miniseries, condensing the voluminous matter coming out of the 9/11 Commission, and including other authoritative sources, promised to be a bombshell in itself. But the series almost didn’t broadcast. Bill Clinton himself demanded changes to the completed film and a number of politicians—none of whom had seen the film, mind you—attacked it. And ABC caved, deleting entire scenes, truncating others, and running a disclaimer. The series, designed to run every year on September 11th, ran just once. It never aired again and was never released on DVD.

Blocking the Path to 9/11: An Anatomy of a Smear details what happened in the aftermath of this debacle. The miniseries itself was billed as a docudrama, indicating that certain liberties were taken with presentation. In Blocking, it is clear from interviews with the participants that they were just trying to tell the truth about the lead-up to 9/11, to “connect the dots” as so many accused the Bush administration of failing to do. Unfortunately for the Left, there were only a few new dots to connect during Bush’s few months in office, but a whole mess of them were ignored during Bill Clinton’s tenure.

A growing sense of horror builds as you watch Blocking. The main writer, Iranian-born American Cyrus Nowrasteh, has a formidable pedigree in the film business, as does director David Cunningham. But nevertheless, they soon became marked men for their temerity in trying to tell us what happened prior to the attacks.

Blocking the Path details how craven Disney was in bowing to pressure from the politicians they helped elect. Several scenes are shown with the excised material intact. The one that stands out most is a moment when the Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan have Osama bin Laden in their sights, the target painted with lasers, and American fighters above, their thumbs poised to fire missiles, awaiting a kill order that never comes. The national security team, including heads of the FBI and CIA and the president’s own national security advisor, all agree that bin Laden must go, but no one has the courage to give the order. And Bill Clinton? He’s upstairs in the White House residence and won’t come down to take the phone call and make a decision. For two hours they wait and he never arrives. Finally, the operation is cancelled. As the leader of the rebels leaves, he says to the CIA operative, “Are there any men left in America?”

The gainsayers of this episode say things didn’t happen exactly that way. Nowrasteh responds that maybe that is true, but they had thirteen such opportunities to kill bin Laden, and for the purposes of the film, they collapsed them into one. All the elements in the edited scene were factual.

That’s thirteen chances to avoid 9/11, folks. Thirteen. Talk about an unlucky number.

And that’s really the crux of the so far successful attempts to derail The Path to 9/11. Though millions of people saw the two-night series broadcast, they didn’t see the version that was approved by the phalanx of ABC/Disney lawyers and researchers prior to the filming. But when pressure against the film began to be felt, ABC/Disney caved for no other reason than to spare the person most responsible for 9/11—William Jefferson Clinton.

Blocking the Path leaves the viewer stunned. Every fact need not be unassailable for you to realize that those charged with protecting us failed miserably and are still trying to cover up their malfeasance with help from the very people who are supposed to defend free speech.

As stated, The Path to 9/11 is still unavailable on DVD. Imagine spending $40 million and not wanting to recoup your investment. When a group of investors at a Disney shareholder meeting challenged the company to either release the film or sell it to someone who would, the CEO responded that he knew of no one interested in buying it. The investors immediately made an offer, which Disney refused.

Mickey Mouse is indeed a rat.

Note: You can sign a petition to encourage ABC/Disney to make The Path to 9/11 available at www.ipetitions.com/petition/thepathto911.

He who controls the media controls history.

Stubborn Things

THOMAS SOWELL'S REMARKABLE BOOK Economic Facts and Fallacies is even more remarkable for its brevity. In just over two hundred pages, he tackles and deconstructs fallacies infecting our cities, our relationships, the academy, business, race relations, and the Third World.

John Adams said famously, “Facts are stubborn things.” The Austin Lounge Lizards sang, “Life is hard, but life is hardest when you’re dumb.” Both are true and one of the most difficult things in life is keeping an open mind for facts that contradict received knowledge—our vision of the world which we hold close because it’s simply easier to believe what we already know is true than to investigate contradictory claims. After all, we’re not stupid; we know certain things are true, right?

Well . . . that depends. Here are a few fallacies and the facts that contradict them. How you receive these facts is something to ponder:

Urban Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Affordable housing requires government intervention.

Fact: It is precisely government intervention in housing which has made housing unaffordable. A hundred years ago people spent a smaller percentage of their income on housing than today. With increasing restrictions on building, due to zoning and environmental regulations, housing prices skyrocketed. “Open space” and “smart growth” policies restrict building and send prices upward. Houston has no zoning laws or like restrictions; a typical middle-class home on a quarter-acre lot that costs $152,000 in Houston costs more than $1 million in San Francisco. As recently as 2001, home prices in Tampa, FL were not much different than Houston, but after restrictive building laws began to take effect, housing prices doubled. And these rates hold true even when adjusted for inflation.

Male-Female Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: The fact that women earn less money than men is proof of discrimination. Where such disparities have lessened, it is because of government intervention.

Fact: While many white collar jobs may be performed equally well by women as men, most jobs are still dependent upon physical strength (construction) and the willingness of the person to engage in dangerous behavior (phone linemen). While men are 54% of the labor force, they are 92% of job-related deaths. In addition, women are often out of the job market for years at a time, bearing and raising children. When they return, their skills are rusty and outmoded. In the sciences, these same years are the peak years of achievement, and thus fewer women are notable scientists because most opt for motherhood instead. The proportion of women engaged in the professions was higher a hundred years ago than it was fifty years ago—long before anti-discrimination laws or the rise of the feminist movement. The reason is that the median age for marriage for women was higher a hundred years ago, thus more women were in the workforce during the formative years prior to their forties. Indeed, most women who staffed women’s colleges during this earlier era were not married at all; they opted out of family life. Finally, the likelihood of future interruptions because of a woman’s prospective role as a mother can make placing her in a senior position more of a risk to the employer than placing a man of similar ability in that same position. Only the never-married women and men are in comparable circumstances, and here women have had comparable or higher incomes than men, years before there were laws or government policies against sex discrimination.

Academic Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Attendance at a big-name college or university is essential for reaching the top.

Fact: The four institutions with the highest percentage of their undergrads going on to receive Ph.D.s are all small colleges with less than 2000 undergrads each. And of the chief executive officers of the 50 largest American corporations, only four had Ivy League degrees and just over half graduated from state colleges, city colleges, or community colleges. The fact that graduates of Harvard receive prestigious jobs and salaries may be traced more to their wealthy family connections than the education they receive, as well as their income from the earnings of inherited assets.

Income Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: American household income has stagnated, rising just 6% between 1969 and 1996.

Fact: Household size has diminished; average real income per person in the U.S. rose by 51% over that very same period. Studies of what people actually consume—their standard of living—show substantial increases over the years. Alarming statistics about the plight of the poor never take into account the government and charitable resources available to them; indeed, the poor’s actual income from work accounts for only 22% of the actual economic resources at their disposal. As for stagnation, by 2001 most people defined as poor had possessions once considered part of a middle class lifestyle. Three-quarters had air-conditioning, which only a third of all Americans had in 1971. 97% had color television, which less than half of all Americans had in 1971. 73% owned a microwave, which less than 1% of Americans owned in 1971, and 98% of the “poor” had either a VCR or a DVD player, which no one had in 1971. In addition, 72% of the “poor” had a car or truck. Yet the rhetoric of the “haves” and the “have nots” continues, even in a society where it might be more accurate to refer to the “haves” and the “have lots.” In fine, the problem is not a stagnation of the national economy, but particular economic and social problems of particular groups of people.

Racial Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Governmentally-enforced civil rights laws have reduced racism in America.

Fact: The percentage of black families with incomes below the poverty line fell most sharply between 1940 and 1960, going from 87% to 47% over that span, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and well before the 1970s, when “affirmative action” evolved into numerical quotas. While the downward trend in poverty continued, the pace of that decline did not accelerate after these legal landmarks, but in fact slackened. There was a similar historical trend as regards the rise of blacks into professional, managerial, and other high-level occupations. In short, affirmative action has produced little or no effect on the relative sizes of black and white incomes. The median black household income was 60.9% of the median white household income in 1970—and never rose above that, or as high as that, throughout the decade of the 1970s. As of 1980, median black household income was 57.6 of median white household income.

Fallacy: The current fatherless families so prevalent among contemporary blacks are a “legacy of slavery,” where families were not recognized.

Fact: Most black children were raised in two-parent homes, even under slavery, and for generations thereafter. Freed blacks married, and marriage rates among blacks were slightly higher than among whites in the early twentieth century. Blacks also had slightly higher rates of labor force participation than whites in every census from 1890 to 1950. While 31% of black children were born to unmarried women in the early 1930s, that proportion rose to 77% by the early 1990s. If unwed childbirth was a “legacy of slavery,” why was it so much less common among blacks who were two generations closer to the era of slavery? Oh, and by the way, from 1994 on into the twenty-first century, the poverty rate among black husband-wife families was below 10%. Turns out that “the man” most important to blacks is the man his wife calls her husband.

Third World Facts and Fallacies

Fallacy: Western nation’s imperialism is responsible for poverty in the Third World.

Fact: There are some prosperous countries whose conquests have been minor or non-existent, and countries mired in poverty that were never conquered. Why are those parts of the Third World least touched by contact with prosperous the most destitute of all? Blame is easier to understand than causation, more emotionally satisfying, and more politically convenient. There are many factors that must be considered: geography (mountainous countries persistently lag behind countries with extensive river valleys), isolation (the indigenous people of the Canary Islands were Caucasians living at a stone-age level when the Spaniards discovered them in the fifteenth century), climate (water is not only life-sustaining, but trade-sustaining; most advanced civilizations arose on navigable waterways), history (in the long view, all nations were Third World nations at some point), law and order (property rights, courts of law, uncorrupt officials—all culturally-dependent—create an environment of prosperity; even Rome’s bloody oppression of conquered lands resulted in a higher standard of living because these elements were a by-product of Roman dominance), population (there must be enough people to congregate in cities, where standards of living always increase; over-population is hardly ever the problem, as there are no examples of countries that had a higher standard of living when their population was half of what it is today), culture (Argentina was mired in poverty before German and Italian immigrants brought cattle-ranching and wheat-production to the country), and foreign aid (living standards were lower in sub-Saharan Africa decades after the departure of the colonial rulers, despite both nationalization of industries and foreign aid).

I’ve merely touched upon Dr. Sowell’s brilliant book, just one of the scores of clear-thinking economic tomes he’s written over the years. Yes, life is hard, but I intend to make my own life less difficult by basing it on facts, not fallacies.