On Digging Deeper, we take a look at six films – feature and documentary – that spoke about the business of business.
Harish Puppala | Rakesh Sharma
Films are a business – a big, messy, sweaty business.
From the film franchises in Hollywood that rake in billions to the films here in India, where the benchmark seems to graduate in almost logarithmic fashion – Rs 100 crore clubs are passé, it's the era of the Rs 1,000 crore club – the business of films is a fascinating one.
While the business of films – the money involved in everything from the first word put down on paper to the film's eventual settling down on a Netflix or an Amazon Prime – demands a series entirely its own, but on this series, we flip the idea – we will take a look at how films have depicted the world of business not their own.
On Digging Deeper, we take a look at some films that cast their lenses on the stock market, the banking sector, financial regulators etc... basically plenty of pinstriped suits and suspenders, caffeine and cocaine, stock shots of the bull on Wall Street, and lots of hands-free sets. Lots.
On this first episode of the series, we take a look at six films – feature and documentary – that spoke about the business of business.
1. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
One of the most important documentaries about business and the ethics of running a business is Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. This was the documentary that introduced an entire generation to the power of documentaries to convey the truth while not putting us to sleep.
Enron. It is now a well-known story. The Houston-based company was a $ 65 billion corporation at its peak. And went bankrupt in one month. This documentary, based on a best-selling book of the same name by reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, is a deep dive into that fiasco.
We see Enron’s origins in the 1980s, how it was set up with energy deregulation in mind, and how it profited after deregulation. We learn how it took accounting practices to the extremes – at one point senior executives were cooking the books. The documentary also covers in some detail the unethical practices of Enron's traders, particularly in the California electricity market.
One of the more cruel examples is the "burn, baby, burn" episode. When one of the California power companies called Enron and said there was a fire in the plant, an Enron trader chuckled and said, "Burn, baby, burn". The fire would cut power supply and raise prices.
The film focuses primarily on the two at the top who were responsible for setting the corporate culture down the line in Enron -- CEO Kenneth Lay and COO Jeff Skilling.
Many of the top executives successfully liquidated the majority of their shares from the company before the collapse. However, the general investor and the employees, who invested much, if not all, of their pension into the company, were the ones who were ultimately betrayed and left with nothing. There were also utility users and payers who were negatively affected.
The incredible part is, of course is asking yourself as a viewer, did they really think they'd get away with such things?
If you don't like documentaries, put that notion aside because this documentary is the one that will keep you on the edge of the seat and with the holiday season coming up, watch Enron: The Smartest Guy in the Room.
2. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
One of the most celebrated portrayals of the business of sales is the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross. This is a remarkable movie. No sex, no violence, no car chases, no fight scenes – just some of the most powerful acting chops you’ll ever see.
Gripping, realistic characters. The film stars Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris and a yet-to-become-famous Kevin Spacey. Powerful lineup, isn’t it?
Glengarry Glen Ross is the story of a failing real estate office in which four agents are told they'd better sell some property quickly or they'll be out of a job soon. Sounds familiar?
By the end of the month, the top seller can win himself a Cadillac, the guy who finishes second will get a set of steak knives. The remaining two will be out.
The events in the movie span a 24-hour period. Or maybe less. That’s the time that the underachieving sales guys have to prove their mettle. The problem is that the good leads are locked away in a cabinet in the manager's room. They won't be distributed until the end of the contest. The guys are left with sales leads that probably won’t work out at all.
Alec Baldwin’s “Always Be Closing” speech from this movie has become one of the most popular movie scenes in the history of cinema. Acerbic, profane and pulling no punches, it is the perfect depiction of a high octane sales pro who knows how to close a deal.
The next morning, the four guys come to work to see that the office has been robbed. And those good sales leads have been stolen! The second half of the film revolves around the investigation of the crime and the fallout of the burglary on the salesmen.
Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alec Baldwin give some of their best performances that leave the audience spellbound after a gripping, complex film. You’ll want to watch certain scenes from this film again and again and if you are a sales professional in a cutthroat environment, this film will certainly give you some flashback.
3. Margin Call (2011)
Margin Call is a 2011 film about the 2008 economic crisis. The movie follows the events at an investment bank over a 24-hour period as the 2008 crisis just about begins to unfold, the calm before the storm.
Starring Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore and Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the Star Trek movies, Margin Call doesn't delve into the technical causes of the Financial Crisis but the human failures - greed, egotism, ignorance.
Peter Sullivan is a young number cruncher at an investment firm in New York. His boss had been fired and escorted out of the building earlier in the day. Sullivan discovers that the company he works for is overleveraged.
It will be a calamity for the firm as well as the global economic system. This shakes Sullivan's superiors, played by Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, out of their stupor and they scramble late at night for a face-saving plan.
Some people consider Margin Call the smartest movie you will ever see about the 2008 crisis. Most films on the business world come across as judgmental, with characters that brazenly break the law and don’t care about the real world fallout of their actions. It is a bit of a tired trope.
Margin Call sidesteps such black and white storytelling. There is no character in the film that breaks the law, engages in a conspiracy, or does anything a reasonable person would label as clearly immoral.
Even when the CEO of the film’s fictional bank makes the decision to sell the company’s toxic assets—the decision that sets in motion the collapse of the entire American financial system—it seems like an understandable but painful choice. What else could he have done anyway? If he didn’t sell first and kickstart the catastrophe, someone else would. And quickly at that.
The consequences are unavoidable, so what good could it possibly achieve if he sacrificed himself and his firm and his employees lost their jobs? Especially if it makes no difference to the outcome?
Check Out Margin Call. A fine, nuanced portrayal of good but flawed people and taking uncomfortable decisions at the risk of being labelled the bad guy who broke the world.
4. Boiler Room (2000)
Boiler Room is a film released in the year 2000 that portrays a young man’s path to success in an investment firm and his conflict with his father, a judge.
A college dropout with high aspirations runs an illegal casino in his apartment. It’s a good source of revenue but does not meet the high expectations of his father. His father is a successful judge, stern and with high standards, which makes his approval important to our protagonist.
One night, the young man, Seth, sees a yellow Ferrari outside his door and is introduced to the wealth potential of stock brokerage. Seth pursues a career with an investment firm located in the suburbs of New York. He learns the craft of sales over the phone. But he has set his aim high – to become a senior broker after obtaining something called a Series 7 license.
He is a terrific natural as a salesperson. Once he completes his training and gets his license, the pay is phenomenal.
He soon notices that the commissions earned at his investment firm are much larger than average. He ends up ruining a small businessman who loses his life savings and his family after following Seth’s false advice.
While he has seen success in this line of work Seth is wracked by guilt and wonders if he has chosen the wrong profession. He confesses his deeds to his father and they agree to take down the investment firm that is making a profit by swindling people. He eventually gets caught by the FBI after helping recover the wealth of the businessman whom he had ruined earlier.
Boiler Room is a good watch over the weekend – great storytelling, some great acting from the lead actors. It’s a bit melancholic at times but, ultimately, Boiler Room a compelling film. In any case, the Boiler Room is one movie you must watch if you are the kind to dig stories about businessmen and their adventures.
5. Arbitrage (2012)
The 2012 movie Arbitrage is an interesting story about a rich hedge fund manager struggling to keep things together and almost failing to sell his own trading empire.
Richard Gere plays a Wall Street tycoon, Robert Miller, worth billions. At least that is the appearance he keeps up. The truth is, he is hiding 400 million dollars in debt.
If that truth were to be revealed, his company would be worthless. He is selling his investment fund company based on falsified values in order to avoid having his business empire collapse.
His daughter works for him at his firm as the CFO but she too knows nothing about the fraud. He has both a wife and a high-priced mistress, Julie.
Things take a turn for the worse when he falls asleep at the wheel of his car and crashes it. He walks away from the crash, only injured, but his mistress Julie is killed.
He then tries to cover up his role in the accident, using the help of a small-time criminal who owes him a favour. He hides at home but a police detective shows up asking questions about his role in the crash. But the detective has no proof tying Miler to the accident and arrests the small-time criminal, who refuses to reveal anything.
Miller's daughter figures out the scam he’s trying to pull but realizes that she will go to prison too if the truth came out. So she decides to stay quiet about the fraud. Miller's angry wife tries to blackmail him but she fails as well and Miller succeeds in selling his company and eventually comes out on top.
Arbitrage is a riveting suspense film that with great performances by Richard Gere and Nate Parker. Hollywood masala storytelling meets the business world in a darkly funny thriller.
6. Capitalism A Love Story (2009)
Capitalism A love story --- sounds like an ode to the free market from CNBC or Wall Street, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not.
This film, or documentary, is from the inimitable Michael Moore- the guy who made compelling stuff like Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling For Columbine, Sicko, Roger & Me, etc.
Capitalism A Love Story is by Michael Moore, documentary filmmaking legend and a renowned anti-establishment voice.
The subject matter here is simple – the effects of Capitalism. Moore examines the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, the fallouts for common people and, in his trademark satirical style, the dark humour in all of the mess. I’m not kidding. Capitalism A Love Story starts off funny…it begins with slices of security footage of various bank robberies with the song "Louie, Louie" for accompaniment. One of the bank robbers was even on an actual crutch.
He also mocks the other American political and historical conceit…the comparisons with the Roman empire, using Encyclopaedia Britannica’s archive videos and cutting to clips of Americans being evicted from their homes.
Moore then cuts to the "golden days" of American capitalism – post-war America, triumphant and confident. Then, Jimmy Carter’s speech warning Americans of the dangers of "self-indulgence and consumption”. It’s not a difficult guess that that speech was not well received.
Michael Moore believes capitalism is a system that claims to reward free enterprise and risk-taking but in reality rewards greed. This seed of thought pervades Capitalism A Love Story.
Moore says it is responsible for the accumulation of wealth at the very top: the richest 1 percent of Americans have more wealth than the bottom 95 percent put together.
He accuses the powers that be of mollycoddling the rich, even bowing to their wishes and not ringing in substantive reforms.
There are some outstanding moments when he brings to light the rot in the system that exemplify the causes of his outrage.
Consider, for instance, something called dead peasant insurance. It’s every bit as crass as it sounds. Companies can take out life insurance policies on their workers so that they collect the benefits when those workers die. Further, companies don't usually inform a surviving spouse of the money they've made from their spouse's death.
Moore also takes a swipe at something called derivatives, where investors can hedge their bets, by betting that people who’ve taken home loans will pay back the loans, or even that they will fail to repay their home loans. They hope to win both ways. The guarantees for these bets? The homes that have been bought on loans. We all know this story pretty well now.It is when it is deconstructing the almost contrived crisis of 2008 that Capitalism A Love Story really shines. At other times, we have the old Michael Moore – acerbic, sarcastic and entertaining.