Atlas Shrugged tries again, just in time for the election

July 27, 2012, 6:50 PM UTC

FORTUNE — For fans of Ayn Rand, the Russian-born philosopher and writer, the 2012 presidential election may seem eerily familiar.

The election pits Mitt Romney, a free enterprise evangelist, against President Obama, who believes that regulation—and federal dollars for government projects— will help repair the economy.

Rand explored themes of government intervention in her 1957 magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, and introduced readers to her theory of “objectivism”—the belief that pursuing one’s own gain, in the business world or otherwise — is a moral imperative. She argued that any law or regulation that does not protect a basic right is an unjust encroachment onto personal liberty.

On October 12th, the second installment of the Atlas Shrugged movie hits theaters. Producers say the film’s pre-election release date is no accident. And in an election that will largely be a judgment of Obama’s handling of the economy—determined, in large part, by a center-right electorate— the film may have some impact. Hardcore Rand supporters, who are most likely to see the film, won’t need to be swayed. But Atlas Shrugged could become part of a larger political narrative, a kind of counterpoint to Occupy Wall Street— the radical conservative answer to the question of what is wrong with America.

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Rand’s books have been adapted for the big screen before. Warner Brothers released The Fountainhead in 1949, with stars Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Even Rand’s lesser-known We the Living was adapted for film in Italy in 1942.

But the process of getting Atlas Shrugged to theaters was a slog. John Aglialoro, the chief executive of private equity firm UM Holdings and exercise equipment manufacturer Cybex International, bought the film rights for $1 million in 1992. Aglialoro, a self-proclaimed “street kid from Philly,” is a Rand enthusiast who got involved in the production of Atlas “for philosophical and commercial reasons.”

Despite the book’s worldwide popularity and the success of The Fountainhead movie, Aglialoro couldn’t find a studio to produce the film. So, like one of the fiercely individualistic characters in Atlas Shrugged, Aglialoro decided to go it alone. In 2010, determined to complete the project before his rights expired, he put up $10 million of his own money, teaming up with co-producer Harmon Kaslow to release Part 1 the following year. The movie places the characters of the 1957 book several years into the future, but in both versions, protagonists struggle against an overbearing government.

The film was a commercial disappointment, generating only $4.6 million in ticket sales — a fraction of its cost. Aglialoro blames Part 1’s underwhelming performance on his unfamiliarity with the theater-booking process, and lack of time to promote the film. So for Part 2, which features a new cast and several other financiers, the producers increased their marketing budget tenfold, and hired Russell Schwartz, who helped market Lord of the Rings, to stir moviegoers’ interest.

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In addition to more aggressive marketing and distribution strategies, Aglialoro is pinning the film’s success on his belief that many Americans—even if sometimes loosely or unknowingly— subscribe to Rand’s ideas. According to Rasmussen polls, 72% of people prefer a free market economy to one managed by the government, and 39% of people believe the U.S. has crony capitalism.

Though Rand personally derided them as “hippies of the right,” libertarians are objectivists’ nearest analog in contemporary politics. Libertarians, who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, resemble Rand in their support for individual freedom. The Pew Research Center, in a study of voters’ beliefs, identified 10% of respondents as “libertarian”— the same number that it categorized as “staunch conservatives.”

But Rand’s influence also extends to the GOP. Many members of the Tea Party are Rand enthusiasts. Politicians like Ronald Reagan, Ron and Rand Paul (not named for the novelist, the New York Times reported), Paul Ryan, and Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson have all expressed admiration for Rand, although some have tried to distance themselves from elements of her philosophy — like atheism — that are less palatable to constituents.

The book is also popular among businessmen like Charles Koch, billionaire shareholder of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think-tank. John Allison, chairman and former CEO of BB&T Corporation and the new head of Cato, required new bank hires to read the novel. And Cliff Asness, managing partner at investment firm AQR Capital Management, wrote an e-mail imploring friends to see Part 1 of the movie last April.

Producer Aglialoro believes that the “prophetic” book’s narrative is particularly relevant to the current election, which pits two different philosophies of job creation and economic recovery against one another. Unsurprisingly, the businessman-cum-producer thinks a Romney administration would be better for entrepreneurs, and despises the expansion of entitlements. “There’s a reason that the Founding Fathers called it the pursuit of happiness,” he says. “You get up at 5:30, you put your hands on the oar and you pull.”

Kaslow agrees with his co-producer about the film’s timeliness. “So many of the things [Rand] wrote about are relevant now,” he says. In Part 2, government representatives sit on the board of Taggart Transcontinental—reminiscent of General Motors and AIG—and Henry Rearden, a self-made metal entrepreneur, defends his fortune. Says Kaslow: “We didn’t make that up.”