PRINT | E-MAIL Interview: Lionsgate's Michael Burns
by Scott Holleran
April 23, 2008
Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns is the force behind the company's ambitious plans to adapt Ayn Rand's epic novel, Atlas Shrugged, for the screen. The longtime admirer of Miss Rand's, from his early productive years working on Wall Street, eventually went West, co-founding the Hollywood Stock Exchange and joining Lionsgate's board of directors. Burns became the firm's vice chairman in 2000.
Under his leadership, according to Lionsgate, annual revenues have grown from $150 million to a projected $1.2 billion and increased market capitalization from $80 million to over $1.2 billion. Burns virtually eliminated Lionsgate's corporate bank debt by converting it into long-term subordinated debt at a blended annual rate of approximately three percent.
Among Lionsgate's well-known pictures: 2006 Best Picture Academy Award®-winning Crash, Monster's Ball and the Saw and Tyler Perry franchises. Recent features include The Bank Job, Good Luck Chuck, the 3:10 to Yuma remake and Away from Her. This week, Lionsgate opened the Chinese fantasy, The Forbidden Kingdom. Burns talked about the company's long-awaited version of the 1957 bestseller Atlas Shrugged during an interview on Sunset Boulevard.
Box Office Mojo: Is Angelina Jolie still confirmed to portray Dagny Taggart in Lionsgate's adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged ?
Michael Burns: Yes.
Box Office Mojo: What's the project's status?
Michael Burns: It's in active development—I'm reading the script. The challenge has been whether it's one or two movies. We're finding consolidation, trying to get set pieces and other moving parts working together, trying to get the essence of the book.
Box Office Mojo: Will Brad Pitt portray John Galt?
Michael Burns: No. I think Brad wants to play Howard Roark if they ever get [an adaptation of Ayn Rand's 1943 novel] The Fountainhead going. He's a big architectural fan, almost a [architect] Frank Gehry groupie. Maybe we'll have dueling Ayn Rand projects, though I think Paramount has [rights to] The Fountainhead. I wish we had it; I like that very much as well.
Box Office Mojo: But Atlas Shrugged is your personal favorite Ayn Rand novel?
Michael Burns: It is. It's one of my favorite books—with some of the richest, most colorful characters of any book. I read it when I was in the ninth grade and it just stuck with me. I can still vividly remember specific scenes in the book. I can't wait to see what [director Vadim Perelman] does with them.
Box Office Mojo: Why did Lionsgate hire Vadim Perelman as director?
|Director Vadim Perelman on the set of House of Sand and Fog|
Michael Burns: We think he did a fantastic job on House of Sand and Fog and he's incredibly talented.
Box Office Mojo: The novel's had a troubled history in being adapted for the screen. What makes you think Lionsgate can do it?
Michael Burns: We have a talented director, a producing team, we have the rights and we have a woman who's arguably the biggest movie star in the world who wants to play Dagny Taggart—probably one of the greatest heroines of literature.
Box Office Mojo: What makes Dagny a great character?
Michael Burns: She is strong and smart but [she's] also flawed; she's really stubborn, almost dogmatic at times, and, if you remember the book, she goes down hard. She really does everything she possibly can to save the railroad. She's got a brother who's a buffoon that's allegedly her boss, a sort of checkered life with lovers and an interesting dynamic with people who work for her and with her. She fights to the bitter end when the great minds of the world go on strike before she capitulates. That's a really interesting character.
Box Office Mojo: Do you see her as the main character?
Michael Burns: Certainly, in the first two acts of the movie, Dagny Taggart will be the lead and, in the end, that's who the audience is rooting for, so, if there were one lead, I think it would be Dagny. But there are other fantastic characters, [playboy] Francisco [d'Anconia] who basically fleeces all these people that he thinks have been taking advantage of society—obviously [industrialist] Henry Rearden, or Hank Rearden—and this great character, the pirate Ragnar [Danneskjold] and John Galt, who's sort of a tangential character in many ways, but certainly a central character.
Box Office Mojo: So you're not going to conceal whether there is a John Galt?
Michael Burns: I think everybody knows that there is a John Galt and, look, in my opinion, I don't think it should be a movie star, because then the audience will know too soon that that's John Galt. If, all of a sudden, Brad Pitt were [playing] John Galt, or Tom Cruise or George Clooney, you'd know—but it has to be an incredibly remarkable face, a face that just pops out at you.
Box Office Mojo: A face with no fear, no pain, no guilt?
Michael Burns: Yes, that's well put.
Box Office Mojo: That's how Ayn Rand describes Galt in the novel. How much are you willing to spend?
Michael Burns: It will be a very expensive movie for us and it will fit into the Lionsgate model in that 70 percent of our budgets typically depend on where we shoot it and foreign pre-sales and this won't be an exception. I've already had a call from just about every studio wanting to see if we could possibly partner and if they could have a deal. It's too early to tell.
Box Office Mojo: Which studios?
Michael Burns: There are only six of them and I've had calls from four asking "can we be a foreign partner?" and if we have any interest in pairing up.
Box Office Mojo: What do you want to make sure you get right early on?
Michael Burns: In a strange way, we have to get it right because it is—even though Ayn Rand was Russian—it is the quintessential, one of the few, true American philosophies, so you really have to be true to Objectivism and what she stood for. You can't compromise. More than anything else, we're looking for the integrity of a [Howard] Roark, which, by the way, is not easy, which may be why the movie's never been made, maybe no one wanted to tackle that. But you have to try. It's better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.
Box Office Mojo: Has a trilogy been ruled out?
Michael Burns: Right now, it looks like one movie, but, again, I can't answer that definitively. A trilogy is expensive, very hard from an availability standpoint.
Box Office Mojo: The novel is divided into three parts, Non-Contradiction, Either-Or and A is A—?
Michael Burns: —But I think it's really in two parts. There's a great moment in the book where Dagny basically steals back her own train—and certainly that would be a great place to break the movie up. It's hard to make one movie from 1,200 pages.
Box Office Mojo: Is it true that you approached the producers about the rights to Atlas Shrugged in a Catholic church?
Michael Burns: I knew [producers] Howard and Karen Baldwin—I'd see them in church, though I knew them outside of church, too—and I knew they had the rights. We were leaving mass [one Sunday], and I said "I heard you have the rights to Atlas Shrugged and I'd like to talk to you about that because that is truly one of my favorite books," so we set up a lunch. Ayn Rand's probably rolling over in her grave to think that happened in a Catholic church. But, look, if you believe in a philosophy—and Ayn Rand was more of a philosopher than anything—that doesn't mean that you have to agree with everything Socrates or Aristotle or Plato stood for; you can embrace many aspects of a philosophy without wrapping yourself up in it. I'm Catholic and [producer] Karen [Baldwin]'s Catholic. But I was married once in a Catholic church—St. Patrick's Cathedral [in New York City] of all places—and I ended up getting divorced and I don't believe in [the Catholic marital annulment rule]—
Box Office Mojo: —So you're not going to be attending mass at Mel Gibson's [fundamentalist Catholic] church in Malibu?
Michael Burns: [Laughs] No, I'm not going to Mel Gibson's church. But—talk about irony—the institution [the Catholic church] is probably involved in the biggest cover-up in the history of religious organizations, with all these priests and bishops [molesting children]. But I go to mass just about every Sunday. I do believe in God.
Box Office Mojo: What do you think of Ayn Rand's thesis in Atlas Shrugged that altruism is at the root of all evil?
Michael Burns: I don't believe that a person should live his or her life for somebody else. I do believe in "do unto others [as you would have others do unto you]" and I don't consider that altruistic.
Box Office Mojo: But the Catholic Church teaches altruism. Are you concerned about being ex-communicated over making Atlas Shrugged?
Michael Burns: Atlas Shrugged is like The Sound of Music, compared to [Lionsgate's priest sex scandal documentary] Deliver Us from Evil, which is a great condemnation of [Los Angeles Catholic] Cardinal [Roger] Mahoney—it is staggering and it is shocking to see how [nothing was done by L.A.'s Catholic hierarchy while] hundreds of kids were molested. You know it happens, but I didn't want to believe—I chose not to believe—that [church officials] would know about these situations and then just move these priests from parish to parish, as if that was going to stop the pattern of abuse. All they wanted to do was shuffle it off.
Box Office Mojo: Is it true you attended Ayn Rand's memorial service when she died in 1982?
Michael Burns: It was the winter of 1982 and I had just started work for Merrill Lynch, beginning my Wall Street career and I went to her wake, which was incredibly well attended. I just went because I had read about her [death] in the New York Times and it was sort of open and, you know, you want your funeral or your wake to take place on a really dreary day and it was—it was almost like a movie set. There were people from all walks of life and I would guess the majority didn't agree with many of the things that she stood for yet they were there paying homage to her mind and her strong belief in something. I went by myself. I was 22 years old.
Box Office Mojo: How did you move from Wall Street to Hollywood?
Michael Burns: I came out to L.A. with Shearson Lehman Brothers when I married and I ended up starting this company with a buddy named Max, a left-wing fanatic, which I say lovingly—a brilliant guy—when the Internet was taking off. It was the Hollywood Stock Exchange. It was basically a game that turned into a market research company of sorts with ideas about how independent films can be financed over the Net—which still hasn't been done—but we thought it was an interesting way to do a lot of great things. As that grew, and we were financed, we started making a few independent movies, so I made such classics as the lesbian comedy But I'm a Cheerleader, and a little movie called Six String Samurai. It was a sensation at Slamdance [Film Festival] that year and then Dancer, Texas, Pop. 81 by Tim McCanlies, who wrote The Iron Giant and Secondhand Lions, and Desert Blue, Morgan J. Freeman's follow-up to Hurricane Streets and then a movie called The Suburbans—boy, I'd like to have that movie back; I sold it to Sony—it had Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Amy Brenneman, Jennifer Love Hewitt. We had a real simple philosophy, which was [making] little movies on small budgets with recognizable casts and, hopefully, good stories. In 1999, I went on the board at Lionsgate because I've had a lot of entertainment banking [experience]. In 2000, I persuaded my old friend Jon Feltheimer to become [Lionsgate chief executive officer (CEO)] and I became vice chairman of Lionsgate, which was a small, tenuous company. We thought there was an opportunity to roll up a bunch of film libraries and make a name in independent film and television scripts.
Box Office Mojo: Have you done well?
Michael Burns: Yes. It's been a good run.
Box Office Mojo: Did you achieve that result by bringing down debt?
Michael Burns: I think that's true. Where everybody else wasn't concerned with interest rates, we hedged out our interest rates and started accumulating cash. Our bet was on content and that there would be all these [entertainment] platforms—we couldn't even visualize what they were—iPod, Pay-Per-View, Video on Demand, DVD, High-Def[inition] DVD, channels emerging everywhere, it was not betting on a specific platform but knowing that all the platforms would [need] content. That was the plan.
Box Office Mojo: Are you still involved with Hollywood Stock Exchange?
Michael Burns: No. It's a sad story. We didn't have the money to keep it going. We sold it to Cantor Fitzgerald, the company [based in the World Trade Center] that was decimated [in the 9/11 Islamic terrorist attack on America]. Just about everybody we were dealing with is dead.
Box Office Mojo: What's your prognosis for Atlas Shrugged?
Michael Burns: We believe this movie could be something great for the company—and maybe something great for the world.
Box Office Mojo: What do you see as the movie's theme?
Michael Burns: Think about it: the world's great minds and great contributors to society—which really are the entrepreneurs—are being taken advantage of—and they are; if you make money, you're giving up pretty close to half of your income, though the United States is still the greatest country in the world, and Ayn Rand would have said that as well—so, what would happen if these great minds went on strike? Would society move forward? It's a great [dramatic] scenario, like that P.D. James novel, Children of Men, which is about [what would happen] if, all of sudden, everyone is sterile. Atlas Shrugged is as pertinent today as it's ever been.
Box Office Mojo: Why should anyone care about the story in today's times?
Michael Burns: When it comes to altruism, there are a great deal of fatal flaws. It's like communism—it's a great concept, but it doesn't work. If people say, well, communism's working in China, that's not communism—that's communism [mixed with] capitalism in a convenient place and, hopefully, all society benefits. Atlas Shrugged does take exception with altruism, which is dead on, and it says that men shouldn't live for [the sake of] other men and that they should absolutely reap the rewards for that which society embraces [through] inventions and patents. And if we live in a society where that doesn't happen, where [businesses] like Rearden Metal are nationalized, like is happening in [the dictatorship of] Venezuela, you take a step backwards and end up with a corrupt regime. That is the greatest threat to free society. Ayn Rand spent a lot of time thinking about apathy—look at low voter turnout—and out of apathy rises a very dangerous situation. I'm a Republican, but how the Democrats could not defeat George Bush [during the 2004 presidential election] is shocking. I would argue that the reason George Bush won reelection is voter apathy—or, something else that Ayn Rand spent a lot of time talking about: fear. [Politicians] use fear to their advantage and that's what's happened in society—with devastating consequences. Would Ayn Rand appreciate George [W.] Bush? I think that she would deplore him. His administration is the pinnacle of cronyism, which she deplored. She stood for individualism and that the strong survive not at the expense of anyone else.
Box Office Mojo: When you imagine seeing Atlas Shrugged on screen, what images come to mind?
Michael Burns: I haven't read the book in a long time but I remember Ragnar throwing [solid] gold bars at Hank Rearden's feet saying "what are these?" And [Ragnar] says these are all the taxes that were stolen from you—or where Dagny's sitting in a diner watching the efficiency of this one short order cook as he's working and it turns out that he's one of the great minds and it made no sense to her that he didn't want to run the entire Taggart Transcontinental food service until later on—when she steals the train back—and I also like it when she's taking the train and she doesn't tell anyone who she is—and I love the scene with the bracelet [made of Rearden Metal] where [Dagny] swaps out the [bracelet] with his wife—this million dollar diamond bracelet—because Dagny thinks it's priceless.
Box Office Mojo: Any interesting casting planned?
Michael Burns: We'd love to cast the role of Hank Rearden with a man's man like Russell Crowe.
Box Office Mojo: Angelina Jolie hasn't exactly had a box office success and reviews of her performances have been mixed—
Michael Burns: Well, look, if you're going to play [video game figure] Lara Croft—I mean, I go back to Girl, Interrupted, or other pictures where I can't take my eyes off her. She's not only breathtakingly beautiful, she has an intensity and, if I could pick one movie star in the world to play Dagny Taggart, it would be Angelina Jolie, Angelina Jolie and Angelina Jolie. She's it. I don't want to speak for her and, like me, I'm sure she doesn't agree with everything Ayn Rand says, but she's a student of [Objectivism]. As far as box office, I think that Hollywood's lost sight of the fact that, if you have a great script or a great story, you're going to get a really talented filmmaker and a great cast. In this particular case, we have a great book [and] a talented actress, so my belief is that we have the goods. It's like [with] Crash—Crash was a great story, and that's the reason people showed up.
Box Office Mojo: Is that your favorite Lionsgate movie?
Michael Burns: I'm partial to it. I'm a big Marc Forster fan and it's between Monster's Ball and Crash. We did a movie called Confidence directed by Jamie Foley—it didn't do any real box office—but it had Eddie Burns, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz and Andy Garcia and I thought it turned out wonderfully—and I'm so proud of a movie called Akeelah and the Bee, which did only $18 million at the box office. I love that movie.
Box Office Mojo: Did Starbucks drop the marketing ball on Akeelah and the Bee?
Michael Burns: I wouldn't say they dropped the ball. It was a learning experience. We tried something new. It has unbelievable performances—that Keke Palmer [the actress who portrayed Akeelah] is a revelation—and it has an unbelievable message.
Box Office Mojo: Is it true that Lionsgate held out for casting Palmer?
Michael Burns: Yes, we loved her. You know what it really came down to? She was believable. You believe that girl was going through all of that and we were looking for somebody the audience would root for and, boy, we got it with her. I think she's going to be a major movie star.
Box Office Mojo: Do you miss Wall Street?
Michael Burns: Wall Street is full of a lot of creative, energetic, smart, fun people and I miss that interaction—in cities such as New York, London and Hong Kong. But I don't miss the nonstop travel.
Box Office Mojo: Who in Hollywood would you invite to Galt's Gulch?
Michael Burns: Clint Eastwood for sure, my friend [director] Marc Forster—he's directing a James Bond movie right now—he's great human being and Angelina Jolie would already be there because she's Dagny Taggart.
Box Office Mojo: Anyone else?
Michael Burns: Maybe Steven Spielberg—he'd be fun to hang out with—–but Clint would be first. He's a throwback to the type of character that Ayn Rand created.
Box Office Mojo: Ayn Rand sought to portray "man as a heroic being." Isn't Clint Eastwood an anti-hero?
Michael Burns: No. He reminds me of [Atlas Shrugged oilman] Ellis Wyatt.
• Director Vadim Perelman on 'Atlas Shrugged'
• Writer and Director Tim McCanlies
• Walt Disney Pictures Chairman Dick Cook
• Index of Interviews by Scott Holleran
• Review: Akeelah and the Bee
• Scott Holleran: 'Akeelah and the Bee' on DVD
• 2003: 'Atlas Shrugged,' Take Five
• Scott Holleran: Gary Cooper and 'The Fountainhead'
• Scott Holleran: New Orleans Disaster and the Line on John Galt
• Scott Holleran: Thank You, Ayn Rand
• Hollywood Stock Exchange
• History of Atlas Shrugged, the Novel
• Atlas Shrugged, the Book and Its Ideas