Forbes story on the Ten Greatest Business Movies and related stories on Forbes.com, says a lot about films attitude toward business. The top ten were: Citizen Kane, The Godfather: Part II, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Godfather, Network, The Insider, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Tin Men, Modern Times… This film list provides new fodder for my theory. My thesis, again, is that, while films usually portray business in a bad light, they do not really say that business is bad. After all, the films most of us see are produced by big businesses. More precisely, films are made by people working in these businesses. Filmmakers see themselves as artists, the latest in a long line from cave painters through Michelangelo. Yet, unlike many artists, filmmakers art is so costly that films cannot get made without lots of money. Filmmakers must get this money from capitalists, who, in turn, must sell tickets. Because film artists resent their shackles, they often show struggling workers, greedy capitalists, and heroic artists. “Good” businesses are those where the artistic types have the upper hand, and bad businesses are those where the artists have lost. In other words, films see firms from the cramped perspective of the assembly line or the cubicle. From way out in Hollywood, firms often seem like beehives or rabbit warrens, unfit for human habitation.
Larry’s point needs to be sharpened up a bit. All things being equal, people prefer good merchandise to bad, and they make exceptionally fine discriminations. Gillette mightily outsells Schick because its razor blades are better, not a lot, just enough. There are a few exceptions to this rule, mostly in aesthetic products, notably Hollywood itself. Bad art makes more money than good art, in general because bad taste is more prevalent than good taste, and in the specific case of movies because the audience for them is overwhelmingly young, and the taste of the average adolescent is even worse than that of the average adult. These are depressing facts if you work in the taste business. “From way out in Hollywood” it is Hollywood that looks “unfit for human habitation.” A screenwriter might rashly conclude that schlock always trumps quality; and in fact, as a survey of Hollywood movies about business shows, he usually does.
The anti-business movies deal overwhelmingly with schlock purveyors: yellow journalists (Citizen Kane), swampland peddlers (Glengarry Glen Ross), penny stock hustlers (Boiler Room), shady aluminum siding salesmen (Tin Men), and out-and-out gangsters (The Godfather). It’s a Wonderful Life gestures half-heartedly toward the notion of quality as good business, as in the scene where Mr. Potter’s rental agent lectures him on how all the nice houses in Bailey Park are killing his real estate business. But mostly it’s more people vs. profits hoo-rah.
In a “pro-business” movie like Executive Suite, our hero, William Holden, is the research chief for the furniture company, and in his big speech, as he ascends to the chairmanship, he tells the board that the company will never sacrifice quality, profits be damned. That it might actually be more profitable to manufacture good furniture does not cross the screenwriter’s mind. (Holden figures prominently in several famous business movies, Network of course and also the most authentically pro-business movie out of Hollywood that I know, Sabrina, which is disguised as a love story. He was, perhaps coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s best man.)
Or consider Tucker, a garish and tasteless but ostensibly pro-business movie. Jeff Bridges plays the real-life car designer Preston Tucker, who sets out to build a revolutionary automobile, and succeeds, only to be squelched by a conspiracy of the government with the Big Three. This happens to be pretty much true; but out of this pregnant material the director, Francis Ford Coppola, fashions only another morality tale of how, as Larry would say, the good company, in which the artist, Tucker, is in charge, goes down to defeat, or, as I would say, the evil capitalists foist off shoddy merchandise on an unsuspecting public. Hollywood doesn’t hate business. It just hates businesses that act all businesslike.