1-3. Atlas Shrugged, Part I (2011), Atlas Shrugged, Part II (2012), Atlas Shrugged, Part III: Who Is John Galt? (2014)
In the summer of 1992, John Aglialoro—a millionaire investor who specialized in EKG systems, dialysis machines, and treadmills—bought an 18-year option on his favorite novel, Atlas Shrugged. The terms of the contract gave Aglialoro full creative control and exclusive rights to a film adaptation, provided he start filming before the summer of 2010. Aglialoro, who’d never made a movie before, spent the 1990s and 2000s pitching different adaptations of Atlas Shrugged to TV channels and studios, none of which moved past the discussion stage. With a little over a month left on the option, Aglialoro and screenwriter Brian Patrick O’Toole decided to crank out a script for the first part of a three-film adaptation of the novel, the idea being that the success of this first, cheap movie would finance bigger-budgeted sequels. Filming started on June 13, 2010, two days before the option was set to expire, and nine days after the director—an unknown named Stephen Polk—had walked off the project.
By the time the movie, dubbed Atlas Shrugged, Part I, tanked at the box office, Aglialoro had invested $20 million and nearly two decades of his life into making a movie out of the Ayn Rand book. Hoping that home video sales would turn around the project’s commercial prospects, Aglialoro started work on Part II with a completely different (and cheaper) cast and crew. Even with its modest budget, the movie failed to break even—something of a feat, considering it opened in over 1,000 theaters. Twenty-two years after using his personal fortune to buy the rights to the novel, Aglialoro was forced to resort to Kickstarter to fund the completion of Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt? Shooting locations included a hotel lobby, a high school gymnasium, and the less scenic parts of a state park; licensed stock footage was used for establishing shots and to fill in gaps between scenes; and the director’s resume consisted of a single episode of the Don Johnson/Cheech Marin cop show Nash Bridges.
Aglialoro’s Atlas Shrugged project is intrinsically fascinating, because all three parts are essentially non-films; they aren’t creative or popular objects, but weights meant to hold down a contract. They are less movies than representations of movies—scale models of the big-budget trilogy Aglialoro was convinced he’d someday make, cast with stand-ins and filled with temp music and rough effects. They belong to a rare category of sub-commercial films: copyright extensions shaped like movies.
4. The Fantastic Four (1994)
So-called ashcan copies—comic books printed only to copyright a title or character name—were a staple of the early decades of the comics business; it seems appropriate, then, that the most notorious of all contract-extension movies was a comic book adaptation. In the mid-1980s, German producer Bernd Eichinger—then fresh off The Neverending Story—bought an option on The Fantastic Four from Marvel, with a deadline set for December 31, 1992. Development on the project moved slowly; meanwhile, studios had become interested in comics following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, which meant that the rights to the characters were worth much more than Eichinger had paid for them. Rather than risk being outbid by another producer, Eichinger decided to spend $1 million on a low-budget Fantastic Four movie. He enlisted B-movie king Roger Corman to put the project together. Shooting started on December 28, 1992—three days before the option was set to expire.
The result, The Fantastic Four, has become a part of pop-culture lore—a cheesy, cheap spandex-and-rubber-mask flick made by a cast and crew who were convinced the movie would be their big break, unaware that it was never meant to be shown to paying audiences. Avi Arad, the executive who would go on to found Marvel Studios, even went so far as to pay Eichinger and Corman several million dollars in cash to destroy every print of the film. That hasn’t stopped the movie—the most naive of all contract-extension productions—from circulating in bootlegs.
5. The Hobbit (1966)
Back in the days of the Cold War, when Czech and Slovaks lived in a The Thing With Two Heads-esque country called Czechoslovakia, an American distributor named William L. Snyder had an idea to make a film based on The Hobbit using the nation’s pool of talented animators. The Czechs had—and still have—the richest animated film tradition in Europe, and Snyder was a key player in exporting Czech animation abroad through his company, Rembrandt Films.
After picking up the rights for a steal, Snyder enlisted Prague-based American animator Gene Deitch as director, and had the legendary Czech animator Jiří Trnka start sketching characters. Neither had heard of The Hobbit or its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, nor had they heard of The Lord Of The Rings, which Snyder also held an option on. Snyder couldn’t pull together the budget for the project, however, and found himself facing a mid-1966 deadline, after which his option on both properties would expire. Not wanting to see his money go to waste, Snyder decided to take advantage of a loophole in his contract with Tolkien: His deal didn’t specify how long his adaptation of The Hobbit had to be.
With a month left on the option, Snyder had Deitch compress the novel into a 12-minute limited-animation short—a fairly easy task, considering that The Hobbit isn’t a very plotty book. (Deitch also put in some of his own elements, changing the dragon Smaug’s name to Slag, and adding a princess to give the whole thing a more fairy-tale feel.) Adolf Born—a highly regarded book illustrator—painted the still images that make up the movie.
Unlike the makers of The Fantastic Four, everyone involved in The Hobbit knew the film was nothing more a ploy to extend Snyder’s option. Yet it’s easily the most artistically accomplished of all contract movies. Snyder screened the film only once, in Manhattan, on June 30, 1966—the day his option was set to expire. A few years later, he sold the rights for a small fortune.
6. Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)
The making of Hellraiser: Revelations was, by all accounts, a farce, spurred by someone noticing that Dimension Films’ rights to the Hellraiser franchise were due to expire in three weeks. A production was quickly thrown together. Series star Doug Bradley refused to participate, and a jobbing actor named Stephan Smith Collins took his place. Gary J. Tunnicliffe, a makeup artist who’s made some Hellraiser fan films, knocked out the script. All in all, the filmmakers had 11 days to shoot the movie.
Like most of the later entries in the series, Hellraiser: Revelations was released directly to video, billed as coming “from the mind” of Clive Barker, director of the original film. “It’s not even from my butthole,” responded Barker.
Bonus: The Dick Tracy TV Special (2008)
Warren Beatty, star and director of 1990’s Dick Tracy, will not let go of the rights to Chester Gould’s yellow-raincoated detective character until a federal court pries them from his cold, dead hands. Beatty—who has a reputation for being somewhat difficult—has had exclusive rights to Dick Tracy for close to three decades, thanks to a vaguely worded contract and a series of lawsuits that culminated in the extravagant “fuck you” known as The Dick Tracy TV Special.
After Tribune Media Services, which owns the Dick Tracy strips, informed Beatty that it intended to take back the rights if he didn’t make another Tracy movie, the actor-director responded by putting together a half-hour program that consisted of film clips interspersed with an in-character interview conducted by Leonard Maltin. And because Warren Beatty doesn’t half-ass even intentionally half-assed rights extensions, he got Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot it. The existence of the Special—which has aired a handful of times on TCM—was enough for a court to rule that the septuagenarian Beatty was still interested in playing the character, extending his option indefinitely.