At a glance
Updated 16 May 2023
By David Walker
If you’re in business and you watch Hollywood movies, chances are that a strange fact will even-tually strike you. Although most of your friends and colleagues in business seem like decent people, the movies consistently portray business – especially big business – as a hotbed of deceit and villainy.
Barely a handful of movies over the past four decades portray a corporate boss as in any way decent, let alone heroic.
The best example is the otherwise unremarkable romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, where a small bookstore owner (Meg Ryan) is driven out of business by a huge book¬store chain run by a tough-minded CEO (Tom Hanks). Ryan’s character eventually discovers that readers browsing in chain stores still get the same exposure to great books.
That Hanks and Ryan end up together is predictable. That Hanks’ character is likeable and even heroic, however, goes right against recent Hollywood history.
Why? One theory is that businesspeople are simply convenient baddies in a world where other convenient villains are thin on the ground, plus most people don’t like their boss that much.
Another is that filmmakers dislike the need for profit simply because it stops them spending more money on their movies. And that resentment shows in how they portray business on screen.
Why the hostility?
The documentary producer Michael Pack was the first to spotlight Hollywood’s business hang-ups in a 1987 documentary, Hollywood’s Favorite Heavy.
Pack expected that the movie industry would try to talk him out of the idea that business had become a popular villain. But to almost everyone seemed to agree with him.
In 2009 a US law professor, Larry Ribstein, set out to analyse Hollywood movies’ antagonism to business and to find the cause. He catalogued the movies’ favourite bad ideas about business: that businesses’ self-interest is always bad for society; that markets reward luck; that trade is a zero-sum game; and that workers should run firms.
Pack had concluded movies were just changing with the more sceptical mood of the 1970s and beyond, and using businesspeople because they were the last set of easy targets left standing.
“Businessmen don’t care in the same way Arab-Americans might,” Pack said at the time.
But Ribstein, a noted corporate lawyer, saw movies’ treatment of business as somewhere between a psychological hang-up and a political offensive. Films were made by people who actually worked for businesses and had particular attitudes about them.
He concluded that what Hollywood filmmakers really resented was not businesspeople themselves, but the need to make a profit. The dislike “stems from filmmakers’ resentment of capitalists’ constraints on their artistic vision,” he wrote.
Ribstein argued that the movies’ portrayal of business did matter in the wider world.
“If Julia Roberts … advocates corporate responsibility, contrary approaches to corporate governance stand little chance of winning audiences’ hearts and minds,” he wrote.
“Films have persuasive power that tips the political balance toward business regulation”.
Business also has one other characteristic that makes it an attractive opponent for movie under-dogs, especially in courtroom dramas. Business can pay for expensive lawyers, PR spinners and other potential villains.
“Corporations have more money than everyone else,” wrote law professor Anthony Chase (still current) in a 1999 paper examining courtrooms and the movies.
“They can pay their attorneys more and last longer and usually win; certainly when they are dragged into court, kicking and screaming, by the powerless.”
Siding with the little guy is a popular movie script technique.
Will things change? Ribstein hoped that movies might “evolve”. But films like The Wolf of Wall Street suggest business will stay Hollywood’s favourite bad guy for a while yet.
Creative disruption in the movies
The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described “creative destruction”, the process by which new industries replace old ones. Only one movie has convincingly portrayed this process: 1991’s Other People’s Money, where a family firm comes under attack from a corporate raider dubbed “Larry the Liquidator”.
Straight-shooter Gregory Peck played the firm’s chief executive, so audiences expected Larry (Danny DeVito) to be defeated in the movie’s climax, where both sides argue their case to shareholders. But Larry eloquently makes the case for shutting down an ageing business and putting the funds elsewhere:
“This company is dead. I didn’t kill it. Don’t blame me. It was dead when I got here. It’s too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this, and the dollar did that, and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead.
“You know why? Fibre optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We’re dead alright. We’re just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market.
“... Take the money. Invest it somewhere else. Maybe, maybe you’ll get lucky and it’ll be used productively. And if it is, you’ll create new jobs and provide a service for the economy and, God forbid, even make a few bucks for yourselves.”
As influential movie critic Roger Ebert wrote at the time: “It is amazing how good an argument he makes.”
The bad news for business
The list of films where businesspeople play the villain is huge, but here are a few examples:
- Movies re-creating genuine corporate misdeeds: Erin Brokovich, depicting pollution by the power firm PG&E, and The Insider, about tobacco firms’ cancer cover-up.
- Unscrupulous businesspeople up front: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, The China Syndrome, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood.
- Unscrupulous businesspeople in the background: Jaws, Alien, Titanic.
- The sins of the finance industry: Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Psycho (where an investment banker leads a secret life as a serial killer).
- The horror of sales: Boiler Room, Glengarry Glen Ross.
- Rapacious property developers: Robocop, Batteries Not Included, Poltergeist.
- Real-life business events where businesspeople are just weird: The Social Network on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Barbarians at the Gate on the RJR Nabisco takeover, The Aviator on US tycoon Howard Hughes.