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Critics and Audiences Disagree on 'Atlas Shrugged': Were They Watching the Same Movie?

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(Strike Productions)

Critics may hate it, but audiences seem to love it.

“Atlas Shrugged Part 1," an independently produced movie based on the 1957 book extolling the virtues of unbridled capitalism, was a surprise financial success its opening weekend, forcing some Hollywood bigwigs to reflect on why they chose to pass on a project based on a book more than 7 million people have read.

"Atlas Shrugged" averaged a take of $5,640 per theater opening weekend. Comparatively, the big budget, big studio "Water for Elephants," also based on a best-selling book  and featuring high-profile stars Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, brought in only slightly more on average its opening weekend -- $5,979 per-theater.

The success of  "Atlas Shrugged" occurred despite near universal panning from movie critics.

The website Rotten Tomatoes, which charts both reviews and audience sentiment, gave the film just a 6 percent positive rating from critics, but an 85 percent positive from audience members, with more than 7,000 viewers weighing in.

“Users tend to be a self-selecting pool. Most people won’t see a movie they don’t think they will not like,” said  Rotten Tomatoes Editor-in-Chief Matt Atchity. “The numbers show a big disparity, but it’s not the biggest disparity we have seen. We see horror movies with the same disparity. I think there are people who went out to see the movie and regardless of the quality of the film will give it a good review.”

But “Shrugged” producer Harmon Kaslow contends that the site is biased and has only compiled negative reviews of the film.

“I think Rotten Tomatoes has put up only a selected number of reviews and it appears the reviews they have selected are primarily the negative ones,” Kaslow told Fox411.com. “We are concerned that it will have a chilling effect on people who have read the book and go to the site to look for the reviews. We’re trying to figure out how to fight back on that now.”

Atchity defended the site’s critic pool, saying the reviews have all come from a pool of approved critics for the site.

“There may be a bunch of bloggers saying this is a great movie, but they’re not established on our site. If we see more reviews from our sources we will put them up. I have one of my guys working on it right now,” Atchity told Fox411.com.

The Rotten Tomato kerfuffle is just the latest hurdle for producers Kaslow and John Aglialoro, who struggled for years to get the picture made. Aglialoro, chief executive of the fitness equipment manufacturer Cybex, who has never made a movie before, has had the rights to Ayn Rand’s bestseller since 1992. Unable to find a home for the film, the two independently financed the film with relatively unknown actors at a personal expense to Aglialoro of $10 million.

Once the film was in the can the producers again approached the studios and were rebuffed for distribution. They chose to distribute the film themselves, bringing on the small Utah-based outfit Rocky Mountain Pictures to book theaters.

“We never got an explanation about why the studios weren’t interested. It was difficult to get their interest in even seeing the completed movie,” Kaslow told Fox411.com.

“When we would approach a studio, the first thing they would ask is who is in it and who directed it. When we told them, they weren’t interested in seeing it.”

At one point in the movie’s genesis it was rumored Angelina Jolie was attached to play the tough as nails female heroine Dagny Taggart. Kaslow said the actress was conditionally attached, but the pieces never fell into place to make things work. In her stead is relative unknown Taylor Schilling, who has one season of NBC hospital drama "Mercy" under her belt.

Through grass-roots advertising within the Tea Party and various other conservative groups including Freedom Works, Reason, The Atlas Society and Americans for Tax Reform, the producers spread the message about the film on a budget of approximately $350,000. They also utilized Google’s ad words, sending  links to users who search for key terms like “Ayn Rand,” “Who is John Galt?” and “Atlas Shrugged.”

Their tight budget made partnering with political groups a necessity, but it proved to be a successful strategy, one that Kaslow doesn’t think a Hollywood studio would have embraced had they taken on the project.

“They would have shied away from those political groups. We have asked to partner with them,” Kaslow told Fox411.com.

The fact that the movie has exceeded box office expectations has some in Hollywood disappointed that they let the opportunity pass them by.

“This is one time that Hollywood’s liberal bias is biting us in the ass,” one studio executive told Fox411.com. Another producer who passed on the picture said they didn’t opt out because of the film’s conservative message but because of the difficulty inherent in bringing the book’s complicated story to the screen.

The film's momentum has slowed since the opening weekend when the producers expanded the flick from 299 theaters to 465, with the average per theater take dropping to $1,895. Kaslow said they plan to expand further, but without additional marketing, that could prove tricky.

“The thing about demographically geared moviegoers -- whether for chick flicks, African-American films, or films about more conservative ideology -- is that they're more independent-minded than marketers give them credit for,” says S.T. VanAirsdale, editor of Movieline.com. “They spread the word if and when they think the word is worth spreading. That's how ‘The Blind Side,’ for example, became such a hit among women and evangelicals.”

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