The credits begin to roll, and the only other couple who sat through a 9:55 p.m. showing of Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike quickly exits the cavernous theater. In a silhouetted flash, the young couple bolts for the door before your humble correspondent can ask whether they, too, had struggled not to pass out for the previous 112 minutes.
Nor were any Regal Cinemas Green Hills Stadium 16 theater staff to be found in the empty hall. Perhaps they'd been whisked away to a capitalist Rocky Mountain paradise by the movie's enigmatic entrepreneurial Übermensch John Galt, the so-called "anti-villain" of the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand. Maybe they were just lucky. More likely they were swabbing popcorn residue upstairs, where a better-attended sequel was playing: the weekend's No. 1 movie, Taken 2.
Whatever the case, at this hour the lobby has the same empty, lonely ambiance as the film's setting, a collectivist American dystopia ruled by a rogues' gallery of '80s action flick villains. But this desolate late-night screening was not the rule but the exception. If John Galt means to stop the world, he couldn't pick a more sympathetic hideout than Middle Tennessee.
According to box-office tracker Rentrak Theatrical, opening weekend revenues nationwide for Atlas Shrugged Part II clocked in at an abysmal $1,714 per theater the weekend of Oct. 12-14. But in Middle Tennessee, it was a different story. All told, Middle Tennessee theaters raked in a per-screen average of $2,463 just to watch rich assholes fight for their right to party.
"Honestly, [the Atlas Shrugged films] have performed well here," says the manager of a major Nashville chain movie theater, who asked to remain anonymous due to company policy. "I was surprised by the turnout this weekend."
Well, not that surprised. In fact, the manager says, other conservative-leaning films, like Dinesh D'Souza's anti-Obama administration jeremiad 2016: Obama's America — now on its way to becoming one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time — typically do very well here. As red as Middle Tennessee runs now, with the exception of Davidson County, is there anything these films' target demo won't embrace?
A good test case would seem to be the current Atlas Shrugged sequel, which, as the second film in a projected trilogy, amounts to the Objectivist equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back. The book Atlas Shrugged is a conservative touchstone — a Yellow Pages-thick fable of wealthy industrialists and inventors surrendering the world to meddlesome socialists. One by one the captains of industry vanish, culminating in a kind of reverse Occupy Wall Street where the 1 percent are the ones who do the camping.
Even in these sequel-abiding times, the movie has a tough row to hoe. On the film-criticism aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it has a score of zero percent. Its cast of veteran supporting players, better recognized by association than name, features That Guy From ER, Laura Palmer's Dad, and You Know, From NYPD Blue (The Other Guy) — although Teller, from Penn & Teller, shows up (and speaks!). Reviews tend to echo The Wrap critic Alonso Duralde, who applauds the decision to scrap the entire first film's cast but laments a special-effects budget "a notch or two above Birdemic."
And yet, when the smoke cleared, Part Deux earned $4,330 on one screen last weekend at the Carmike Thoroughbred 20 at Cool Springs. At Regal's Opry Mills 20 and Green Hills 16, it earned $2,900 and $2,488 respectively, well above the nation's per-screen average.
The widely panned pro-charter-school, anti-teachers union propaganda piece Won't Back Down, financially backed by arch-conservatives Rupert Murdoch and Philip Anschutz, made headlines a few weeks ago when it set a new record for the lowest opening-weekend box office ever for a movie on more than 2,500 screens. The end tally was a dismal $1,045 per screen.
But at Nashville's Opry Mills 20, it grossed more than four times the national average — one of its best showings in the Southeast, even though the movie provides all the entertainment value of warm toast. Other Nashville theaters also performed well above average. Of course, not every city had the PR benefit of its Democratic mayor stumping for the film at advance screenings.
That films of a conservative ideological bent don't do as well elsewhere may even be part of their appeal, according to Washington, D.C.-based film critic Victor J. Morton, who runs the website Rightwing Film Geek (vjmorton.wordpress.com).
"It's a conservative and religious state, relative to the national average," Morton writes in an email to the Scene. "People like to see themselves, or people like themselves, in the movies, or see documentaries and issue films with which they agree.
"And these sorts of films — great ones like The Passion of the Christ, issue docs like Expelled and 2016: Obama's America, 'apostate' films like Waiting for 'Superman' or American Carol, religious witnessing like the Kendricks in Georgia and The Grace Card, irreligious witnessing like the Atlas Shrugged films — they all specifically situate themselves, at least for the marketing and the audience, as 'we'll show liberal Hollywood.' "
That sentiment runs so deeply in the Bible Belt that others — emboldened by the grosses for church-marketed religious dramas — are taking up the tools of production to offer a more relatable, less liberal reality. Earlier this year, conservative WWTN radio talk-show host Phil Valentine released An Inconsistent Truth, a saucy send-up of Al Gore's climate change polemic An Inconvenient Truth. For the weekend of Jan. 27-29, it had the highest per-screen average of any movie in the country — a whopping $20,733 — despite screening at only one theater at 100 Oaks' Regal Hollywood 27.
"I did, indeed, find the reception for our film better in Middle Tennessee," Valentine says in an email. "We did a test-market in Memphis and the reception was not nearly what it was in Nashville. For the first two weeks of the film's opening in Nashville we had the highest-grossing movie per screen in the country. Some might say that it's easy to do that when you're only on one screen, but it's not. There were several films out at the same time that started on just one screen, and we were far ahead of them. We grossed nearly $21,000 that first weekend."
The rise in films like Valentine's and others, Morton says, is due in part to conservatives' dislike of the Obama administration, in addition to the increasing affordability and technological power offered to do-it-yourself movie producers. Just as left-wing filmmakers found sympathetic audiences during the Bush administration — remember how Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 sold out show after show at Green Hills during the 2004 election year? — Morton contends films like these are a response by a minority to the perceived majority.
"This is often the case for the filmmakers themselves too," Morton writes. "In other words, it's counter-programming that depends significantly on tribal ID. The tribe, so to speak, has big numbers in the Bible Belt because of the perception ... that Hollywood and its regnant culture (not to speak of Indiewood or the arthouse) are left-leaning and perceive Tennessee and the rest of the Bible Belt as a backward enclave of superstitious hillbillies.
"The tribe of superstitious hillbillies doesn't like that," Morton concludes. "And buying a ticket to Atlas Shrugged or 2016 is an emotionally satisfying way to say, 'Fuck you, Hollywood.'"