In 1986, stock trader Ivan Boesky addressed a class of MBA graduates at the Haas School of Business, Berkeley, and gave the commencement address, saying, “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself”. Later the same year, Boesky was jailed for 3.5 years and fined $100 million in a case of insider trading.
This tale may sound familiar, because one year later, in 1987, a young, snappy Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) found himself in front of a Senate committee talking about ‘survival of the unfit’ in corporate America. He called himself a ‘liberator of companies’ (while being a corporate raider) in three simple words: “Greed is good”. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was a gripping saga of the relationship between a broker and his mentor, and all the folklore shadiness of America’s largest financial institutions displayed as personal agendas. Wall Street popularised the idea of movies about money – gambling, trading, financial crises and the like.
Business and finance in movies have always been interesting dispositions. The genre provides a fascinating layer for converting high stakes deals to personal agendas. Nothing hurts more than a personal relationship being affected because you cheated someone out of a contract. Plots are driven through slick money moves. However, how realistic are they in their portrayal? Do they cover all details? How influential have these movies been?
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’ (1987); 20th Century Studios
Let’s start with the last question, because when we talk about the power of film to literally change things, this question has the most substantive answer. In 2010, The Financial Times interviewed around 20 Wall Street executives about the hold the movie of the same name had on them and noted that all of the executives knew the plot inside out. B-School respondents mostly didn’t delve into the intended moral stance of the film, focusing exclusively on making money. Thirty years on, of course, people understand that the movie was trying to hit at corporate raiding - a practice involving a hostile takeover, followed by a sale of assets. But back then, slimy trader Gordon Gekko’s one-liners were gold for self-help books. Wall Street was a self-fulfilling prophecy in a lot of ways - finance was pretty boring to the average audience before the movies came about. Now, the perception of the industry is one of being breakneck. Audiences who were inspired by the movie began to relate the real Wall Street to the film, blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. “Greed is good”, “money never sleeps”, and other ‘cool’ quotes became part of everyday usage. Finance in America till then had been a fairly mundane thing to talk about. Wall Street changed that.
The adrenaline at a trading floor, unparalleled for those involved in it, has been used as an emotion throughout movies about finance. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) opens with a chaotic scene at the now-defunct brokerage firm LF Rothschild, where everyone is fighting to lock in as many trades as possible before market closing. It’s why a movie like Wall Street worked. Hollywood has historically been great at selling the American Dream (a la Citizen Kane, The Pursuit of Happyness). What better genre than movies explicitly about lots of dollars to do that? Mark Zuckerberg has admitted that he received a lot of letters from people after the release of The Social Network, saying that the movie inspired them to start-up. The co-founders of fantasy trading platform, Wall Street Magnate, were a result of such inspiration. Taking this influence a step further is looking at how pop culture influenced job searches. The late 80s to early 90s were reeling from the aftereffects of volatile markets, which also created market gaps for people to open their own firms. The Wolf of Wall Street covers that period when Jordan Belfort opened Stratton Oakmont. An infamous Forbes piece from 1991 (the one that gave him the moniker) highlighted how money-crazed youngsters, fresh out of college, landed themselves on the doorsteps of the firm for jobs. They had little interest as to the actual skill of brokerage but were more enchanted by the status that it conferred. It was confirmation for them that the movies were true.
But we also know how that fantasy ended. Belfort went to jail for stock fraud (and so did Gekko and Boesky), and Stratton Oakmont was dissolved.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); Red Granite Pictures
How Realistic Are They?
Now for the next question – how right are these movies about money? As revered as it is today, Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) gets almost very little right about sales. It is depicted as a profession requiring a lot of slick (and borderline dishonest) talk, and a nomadic, extroverted approach to life. In reality, working in sales can be a pretty thankless job and more than slick talk, it needs a thorough consumer understanding. Then again, no one really loved the movie for telling us how sales works. They loved it because of the stellar acting and a wild screenplay. Wall Street too had a number of glaring errors: depicting the SEC as having arresting powers and not knowing that you could short-sell when the economy is facing a downturn. The sequel to Wall Street had it a little worse: Shia LaBeouf’s character was a proprietary trader who was required to raise capital like a private equity player. In fact, both of these require considerably different skill sets. Trading requires being quick on your feet, while private equity needs longer periods of due diligence.
Another popular movie that gets the details of finance not quite right is the Ben Affleck-starrer Boiler Room (2000). It starts off getting the vibe right, but not the details. Stocks of companies that don’t even exist are sold, something that could have been easily solved with the FBI reading stock prospectuses. It says a lot about how much the ‘vibe’ or ‘feel’ of finance is mistaken for actual detail. The movies give the idea that finance is one constant adrenaline rush, where pressure lurks around every corner. But it doesn’t cover the amount of boring number-crunching the job actually involves. Trading becomes as simple as passing a Series 7 exam (the exam that Will Smith took in The Pursuit of Happyness). This was the emotion Wall Street sold to unsuspecting viewers.
It isn’t all that exciting to start-up, either. Facebook (The Social Network, 2010) and Microsoft (Pirates of Silicon Valley, 1999) have exciting stories because they were at the right place at the right time. A lot of start-ups are simply not in that kind of position. Starting up is a lot of grunt work, a lot of cold-calling people to see who might be interested in your product. It is extremely difficult to attract funding attention. And a fundamental misconception that Hollywood perpetuated was the supposed ease of getting venture capital, especially with the famous “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars” quip in The Social Network.
The Social Network (2013); Columbia Pictures, Relativity Media
Even so, movies in the previous decade have done a stellar job with regards to accuracy. Margin Call (2011) is one of the few movies revered among industry professionals when it comes to true depictions of high finance. It covers the working of a firm that’s trying to weather the storm that was the 2008 housing crisis. It subtly inserts jargon about the volatility of its mortgage-backed securities and has an anxiety-ridden backdrop appropriately more suited to a high-finance firm than a joyous, vibrant one. It has no qualms about revealing the true nature of decision-making in bulge-bracket banks – we are going to do what everyone else is doing because it makes us money, but when the ship sinks, we are stealing the only lifeboat available. The Big Short (2015) makes it clear that it wants you to understand the American economy as well as you can, because that is essential to getting the film’s message. It covers every deep end of the financial industry without you having to ask again what each stakeholder stands for – credit-rating agencies, investment banks, lenders, mortgage lenders, and, of course, the government. More interestingly, however, it deals with a key question often avoided by mainstream Hollywood: how hypocritical would one have to be to critique the system, when, in fact, one is a part of the system? As a part of the system, you may be, in large or small part, an enabler. But you also need to make a living. There is probably no right answer to this because history says that answers to these questions have often been reductive. Plus, the dilemma of having big money fund movies that criticize capitalism, is a dilemma that doesn’t resolve itself.
It makes one wonder about the change in the influence of such films. Movies about finance are important critiques of capitalism – which is a massive shift from inspiring the chasing of glamour. The Big Short looks at the system through the eyes of its inhabitants. It is an insider view that criticizes the systemic ways in which American working-class people are burdened with debt. It also provides fuel to people who are gate-kept from pointing flaws in the system simply because they supposedly don’t know economics.
Succession (2018 – present) is a notable example of a media that succeeds on both fronts. While the show is largely about toxic, cut-throat dynamics in an ultra-rich family, it inserts enough subtle context in the form of father-child battles disguised as private equity deals and boardroom drama. However, it never loses focus on the attention to business detail in the midst of it all. The writers’ room of the show is expected to read the Financial Times extensively as part of their research. At the end of the day, you come out knowing what a bear hug is, and how mergers and acquisitions in America have a history of being brutal and unfair. There is also Up In The Air (2009), one of the more feel-good movies that centre around business – specifically, the business of hiring and firing. George Clooney plays a consultant who lives in airports. His job involves going to cities and firing employees on behalf of the company. It all changes when a young graduate played by Anna Kendrick decides to implement – in a timely fashion – a video chat platform to save travel costs. The two are then forced to realise the human implications of their job.
Succession (2018 - ); HBO
This line of argument feels slightly inadequate without talking about Moneyball (2011). What actually looks like a complicated movie about statistics in baseball is really a David-beats-Goliath story where a small-market team tries to beat the bigger ones. Moneyball gets just enough detail right about the statistics used in the sport, the econometric software used to calculate them, and so on. But it highlights something not often talked about – the gap between small-market and big-market teams in sports. The Moneyball-approach has revolutionized sports, allowing smaller teams to leverage analytics in order to be legitimate title contenders. The movie was very much about the business of money, but it was also about finding loopholes in capitalism.
As far as India goes, the most pitch-perfect piece of media on these lines has been the web series Scam 1992 (2020). Besides a few movies like Guru (2007) and Corporate (2006), India hasn’t really had a history of movies about business. Scam 1992 captures an era when the Indian economy was only slowly opening up to new opportunities and risks, and it does so with utmost care, respect, and empathy. It is a great example of the fact that the ‘money movie’ has become a gateway into a form of edutainment that also seems to lead to people attempting to make actual efforts to improve their financial literacy levels. Influencers in India used examples from the show to give financial advice to new stock market entrants. This is also opening, if not furthering, debates about what is fair and what should be allowed in the name of free markets among a larger number of people. The discussion has come a long way, and informative dissections of economics are not just limited to documentaries anymore. They have now found a base in true-blue, brutally honest storytelling.