Over the holidays a friend suggested a fun column to get through the year-end slowdown in news. Why not rank the 10 best business movies of the decade?
It didn’t go that well. Without counting documentaries, a list of 10 was way too ambitious.
There was a “Wall Street” sequel, but I wouldn’t even watch it on cable, as the 1987 original had enough laugh-out-loud lines to almost be a self-parody. As for a vulgar 2013 movie called “The Wolf of Wall Street,” I still resent the $11 for the ticket and two hours that were taken from me.
The list got to three and stopped.
I can assure you, the standards here were not too high. It had to be both a good movie and one I had watched. It also had to be one that treated business seriously. That was maybe the main achievement of my third-place film, the “The Big Short,” even though it was made by a guy known only for his comedies.
The mortgage security derivatives industry employs rocket scientists, yet the filmmakers not only put it on screen but seemed to get the facts right enough. There were lots of quirky moments but just one big idea: You didn’t have to be a savant in the middle of the ’00s decade to realize that out-of-control subprime mortgage issuance had led to a bubble in housing values and monstrously mispriced securities.
The misfit heroes of the 2015 movie didn’t just suspect, but really knew it could only end in disaster. That’s after doing research so simple a first-year associate could have done it.
An unlovable character you still love watching is an investor called “Mark Baum” in the movie and played by Steve Carell. At one point, team Baum goes to a mortgage securities conference in Las Vegas. Upon arrival, the obnoxious Baum is told to please resist running his mouth.
A remark made by a keynote speaker prompts Baum, sitting in the audience, to wave his thumb and forefinger in the shape of a zero and insist loudly that there’s zero chance subprime mortgage losses will be kept to only 5%. Before the speaker can respond, Baum answers his ringing cellphone.
There’s a Mark Baum in every market, hopefully not as rude. Maybe we can’t be one of these prophets, but we can at least try to understand what they’re saying.
Visionary business leaders a long way from Wall Street make for good stories, too, and an interesting version is told in the runner-up film called the “The Founder.” It’s about Ray Kroc of McDonald’s.
Don’t feel bad if you fall asleep and miss the last half. The key scene comes early, when Kroc is an ambitious sales rep of milkshake mixers and he’s learned that a single restaurant just ordered six of them.
Assuming a mistake, he picks up the phone and reaches co-owner Dick McDonald, who wasn’t sure he had the order right after all. “Better make it eight,” McDonald said.
Kroc, played by Michael Keaton in this 2016 movie, goes out to California to see the McDonald’s. He gets in line and orders a burger, fries and Coke. The employee behind the counter promptly hands him a paper bag and cup.
“What’s this?” Kroc asked.
Kroc stands there, holding a hot burger and fries in a bag, not sure what he is even supposed to do next. And he’s thinking.
Kroc would not have recognized the term, but he had just stumbled onto a disruptive innovation. This must be the clearest illustration of this very powerful business idea ever put on the screen.
Disruption is a word used a lot but often incorrectly. It’s not some upstart with a cool app taking on big companies. As first developed by Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, this theory describes how a creative company with not much money can still carve away pieces at the bottom of a market and even one day topple the leaders.
One key idea is that it is not a better product that wins. It’s one that’s worse.
The McDonald’s Kroc visited wasn’t as “good” as regular restaurants. Demanding customers, the people who wanted at least a place to sit if not a dining experience, were never going to McDonald’s.
The McDonald’s customers, though, didn’t care that they had to sit on the curb in the sun and eat out of a paper bag. The food was fast, good and cheap.
Christensen later called McDonald’s a “hybrid” disrupter, in that it didn’t just attract customers from other restaurants. Ray Kroc certainly realized what he was seeing — and eventually he took it away from the visionary McDonald brothers.
The top business movie on my list is “The Social Network,” the story of a different kind of founder and a different kind of innovation. But this story also gets messy.
At the beginning was something called FaceMash, as Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg hacked into photos of female students in university directories and put them on the internet to let users select who was more attractive. (Zuckerberg later called this a prank and denied it was the genesis of Facebook.)
The eventual dropout Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, ends up fighting with a Facebook co-founder (and one of his few friends) as well as two equally unpleasant brothers who thought they had hired Zuckerberg to build a Facebook for them.
The movie was released in 2010, and the action wraps up before Facebook really blossomed into the company we know now. But even at the start of the decade this movie questioned the promise of Silicon Valley — and a technology business for connecting “friends” created by people who don’t seem to know much about relationships.
The decade ended with many more questions. Not only had there been a spectacular Silicon Valley fraud but some of the era’s big successes, like Uber Technologies, managed to go public even though they may never make money. And whose life is better because of Uber anyway? Not the drivers’, with estimated average hourly pay, after expenses, that might not beat minimum wage.
The makers of “The Social Network” ended their movie with Zuckerberg trying to “friend” on Facebook his ex-girlfriend Erica, driven off earlier by his arrogance.
“Baby, You’re a Rich Man” by the Beatles plays on the soundtrack as he repeatedly refreshes the page, hoping she has replied.