Conventional wisdom holds that Hollywood is a business hater. “Hollywood’s approach toward finance, indeed towards capitalism in general,” The Economist opined in its Prospero column in 2015, “is almost relentlessly negative.” After reviewing the content of dozens of movies for my book Contemporary Film and Economics, the view that movie industry is categorically hostile to business needs updating.
To be sure, the movie industry has not embraced Capitalism. Plenty of films are produced each year that depict businessmen (and women) as pathological, narcissistic, or just down right evil. The Devil Wears Prada (2006) was one of the more benign depictions of the narcissistic and self-absorbed business person. Meryl Streep won a Golden Globe for Best Actress playing Miranda Priestly, the demanding and shrewish fashion editor who brow-beat her young assistant (Anne Hathaway). The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) projected the epitome of greed in Leonardo DiCaprio’s depiction of fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort, helping parlay it into a blockbuster that scored five Academy Award nominations. The lesser known War Dogs (2016) explored the underbelly of modern arms dealing as one of the lead characters, Efraim, scams his partner and the U.S. Department of Defense through multimillion dollar contracts.
But the business owner as villain has become a storytelling trope that falls flat with modern audiences and certainly can’t ensure success at the box office. The Circle (2017, based on the popular novel) told the story a social media company that attempted to leverage its ubiquitous presence in society to undermine democratic government. The company bought off tech-fawning politicians and positioned itself to control the electoral process by using its network as a voting portal. The founders of the company, played by Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt, are publicly exposed as greedy, power-hungry hypocrites. Despite the star power of Tom Hanks (also a producer), Emma Watson, Bill Paxton, and others, The Circle was a box-office flop.
This year’s Hotel Artemis (2018) is cast against urban riots in Los Angeles triggered by price hikes and restricted access to water. The price hikes were inexplicably orchestrated by a private contractor responsible for managing LA’s water utility. Since the price hikes and restricted access are not unique features of private contracting--in fact they are less likely to happen under privatization for a variety of reasons--the backstory is an explicit knock against private business. Despite the star power of A-list actors such Jodie Foster and Jeff Goldblum, with several lesser known stars pitching in their personal funds to keep the project afloat, the movie’s box office revenue fell well below expectations and its production budget.
Anti-capitalist movies still do well, as the critical and commercial success of films such as the anti-banking Hell or High Water (2016), anti-Wall Street Wolf of Wall Street, and the neo-Marxian Magnificent 7 (2016) demonstrate. But the landscape of characters and villains is changing, this bodes well for entrepreneurship and private business in American culture. For the most part, Capitalism and entrepreneurship are getting a more balanced treatment in mainstream films.
Demonizing bankers and financial investors, for example, would have been easy in the aftermath of 2008’s Financial Crisis and Great Recession. But the writers and director of The Big Short (2015) chose to humanize the players rather than vilify them while educating audiences about the arcane details of corporate finance through creative filmmaking. The Academy Award winning (for adapted screenplay) story exposed the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by those in the industry, creatively recognizing that inner conflict was an effective way to build tension and tell the story. By allowing the investors and brokers to be emotionally, professionally, and ethically conflicted, they were humanized rather than demonized. This artistic choice to avoid demonization also created suspense for the audience as they wondered what each character would actually do to resolve their personal and professional conflicts.
In The Founder (2017), screenwriter Robert Siegel and director John Lee Hancock were explicit in their desire to raise questions about Kroc’s business ethics, but not necessarily answer them. A reasonably faithful telling of the story certainly casts doubt and a shadow over Kroc’s choices and business ethics, but the movie doesn’t condemn the franchise model that revolutionized the fast-food industry. Moreover, they honored the original McDonald brothers as businessmen, interested in making money as well as taking pride in their own innovations.
Of course, the movie Joy (2015) is a heroic tale of the rise of Joy Mangano, inventor of the miracle mop, featuring the star power of Jennifer Lawrence. Joy is an uncompromising celebration of entrepreneurship and uses the real world challenges and pitfalls of striking out alone to build the story’s tension and momentum. As a biopic, this profitable movie elevates entrepreneurship as a noble and heroic enterprise.
Celebratory movies like Joy are still scarce in Hollywood. But entrepreneurs are becoming more nuanced and more complex, a better reflection of the real world of market economies. Moreover, fewer business men and women are being cast as cartoon villains.
One of the better examples of how these roles have evolved within a franchise may be the multi-billion dollar Jurassic Park movies. In the first film, realized in 1993, John Hammond was the capitalist who saw the profit potential of cloning dinosaur DNA to recreating them in modern times. His Jurassic Period theme park helped finance his scientific investments. Of course, he couldn’t control the dinosaurs, and they wreak havoc up the park, nearly killing his family.
In Jurassic World (2015), the CEO of the Masrani corporation has more dimension. The corporation has reopened the park, believing it has finally found a way to manage the animals. When the dinosaurs once again run amok, the CEO doesn’t remain in denial. Rather, he is faced with a choice of preserving his investment or cutting his losses. He quickly and decisively chooses to destroy his investment rather than let it continue to rampage through the revitalized theme park. The decision, while tragic, represents an executive willing to take responsibility and accept the consequences for his decisions.
In the most recent movie, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), the CEO of the company is opposed to the further commercial exploitation of technology given the risks. Instead, his greedy and narcissistic assistant works behind his back to save the dinosaurs and forge a deal with nefarious arms dealers. While greed and profit on the motive, the movie doesn’t demonize the business community or entrepreneurs.
None of this is to suggest that Hollywood or the film industry is embracing Capitalism, free market economics, or entrepreneurship as a general frame for casting movies. To some extent, the willingness to add complexity to business owners and entrepreneurs is a practical one: the trope of the evil businessman has become a simplistic trope that is no longer successful at anchoring compelling stories. But the more nuanced entrepreneur is also more suited to the realities of younger generations that are more open to the benefits of profits whether to fund their social causes (social entrepreneurs) or to enrich themselves.
Good movies are grounded in good stories, and those stories have to connect with audiences. The more successful stories are grounded in time-worn ethical dilemmas that challenge everyday people. As the economy moves to a more sophisticated and complex services based economy, entrepreneurs and business managers become fertile ground for exploring conflict and ethical dilemmas. The consequence is more realistic portrayals of entrepreneurship and private business, and market economies. Hopefully, aspiring filmmakers are learning these lessons so audiences will see more practically grounded movies like the Big Short and Joy coming to the big screen instead of the dogmatic backstory of Hell or High Water or Magnificent Seven.
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