September 05, 2006
Movies/TV Shows with Corporate Themes
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

I taught my first class today and started out with a movie clip.  I like to show at least one movie or portion of a movie in class.  Just because its fun and it reminds students that issues related to corporations are all around them.  I also find that students tend to remember issues better when I can contextualize them with a movie or TV show.  My old stand-by for Corporations is Barbarians at the Gate, but I also show a clip of Trading Places in my Securities Regulation course (the scene invovlving trading in frozen concentrated orange juice).  However, I am always looking for new movies to show.  Does anyone have any ideas on some good movies, portions of movies, or TV shows with good corporate themes?

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Comments (22)

1. Posted by Vic on September 5, 2006 @ 19:07 | Permalink

I've also used that clip from Trading Places (the best way to introduce derivatives!) and I'm planning on showing Barbarians to my Venture Capital & Private Equity class to introduce buyouts.

I've been teaching clips from Startup.com for some time now. It's a great documentary, although it has aged rather rapidly. Some of our students were in high school during the dot com boom.


2. Posted by Elizabeth Brown on September 5, 2006 @ 22:08 | Permalink

In terms of fictional movies, "Wall Street" and "Boiler Room" deal with the securities markets. "Working Girl" deals with the merger of a corporation with a radio conglomerate to prevent a Japanese takeover of the corporation. "Its a Wonderful Life" deals with the struggles of running a family owned savings and loan during the Depression and World War II. "Citizen Kane" traces the life cycle of a media conglomerate that starts as a small newspaper business, acquires radio stations and other enterprises and then goes bankrupt in the Great Depression.

In terms of documentaries, in addition to "Startup.com", there is "The Corporation", "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room", "Roger & Me", "Supersize Me", "Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Prices", and Frontline's "Is Wal-mart Good for America?"

I like the film, "The Corporation," because it is concerned with whether there are systemic forces (the law, the market) which force corporations to be only concerned about shareholder wealth maximization even if they may harm other stakeholders to achieve this. The other documentaries deal only with individual firms. As a result, it is easy for students to dismiss the problems raised as unique to those corporations.

One of the producers behind the film is a law professor, Joel Barkan. The web site for the film also includes notes on how professors can use it to provoke class discussions. See www.thecorporation.com

The Synposis of "The Corporation" on its web site states the following:

"THE CORPORATION explores the nature and spectacular rise of the dominant institution of our time. Footage from pop culture, advertising, TV news, and corporate propaganda, illuminates the corporation's grip on our lives. Taking its legal status as a "person" to its logical conclusion, the film puts the corporation on the psychiatrist's couch to ask "What kind of person is it?" Provoking, witty, sweepingly informative, The Corporation includes forty interviews with corporate insiders and critics - including Milton Friedman, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Michael Moore - plus true confessions, case studies and strategies for change.

Winner of 24 INTERNATIONAL AWARDS, 10 of them AUDIENCE CHOICE AWARDS including the AUDIENCE AWARD for DOCUMENTARY in WORLD CINEMA at the 2004 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL."

Although not agreeing with its conclusions, The Economist magazine gave the film a positive review. Michael Wilmington, the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, had this to say about "The Corporation":

"Over and over, 'The Corporation's' interviewees give examples of much modern corporate mischief and misbehavior (along with some good deeds), ranging from the excesses of an Enron to the stifling of a couple of investigative reporters at Fox News. And several times, they ask implicitly, whether a person who behaved like this would be regarded as a suitable case for treatment.

That the filmmakers . . . already know the answer may be the film's main flaw. But that doesn't mean this is just another politicized documentary preaching to the anti-establishment choir. It's a movie so chock full of information, so dense with context and analysis that it will keep you thinking and reacting, no matter what your bent or slant--and no matter where you stand on the world-wide corporate ladder."


3. Posted by Dram_man on September 6, 2006 @ 1:14 | Permalink

I recommend "Rouge Trader" about the Lesson/Barings scandal in the early 90s. Some good derivatives stuff as well as the behind the scenes of what goes into trading.


4. Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on September 6, 2006 @ 5:13 | Permalink

I'm as ready as the next person to inject popular culture (and humor) into teaching, but as somebody who lived in the corporate world, I have real reservations about using Hollywood's version of it as a pedagogical tool, except when the very small clip would illustrate a particular point.

On the other hand, I showed Startup.com to my venture capital seminar, and would use it in a heartbeat in a business planning class. I can see using a well-done documentary later in the class or in an advanced class.

For what it's worth, I start my BE I class with a hypothetical (posted with the first set of assignments) that is a business planning problem. It's designed to have the students, most of whose notions of corporations (if they have any notions at all) ARE formed by movies, think about the issues underlying legal forms of enterprise in context. (Available at no charge to anyone who wants it!)

I assume most of the movies listed above are listed because they have something to do with corporations, and not because they have any teaching purpose. Starting a BE class with Roger & Me? Or Citizen Kane? Or Oliver Stone's take on Wall Street? C'mon. I will do it when Laurence Tribe starts his Con Law class with "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."


5. Posted by Elizabeth Brown on September 6, 2006 @ 8:09 | Permalink

The question posed was: Does anyone have any ideas on some good movies, portions of movies, or TV shows with good corporate themes? The question did not require that one had actually shown all or portion of the films suggested in class and I did not say that I showed all or a portion of each of the films that I listed in class. Frankly, I wouldn't have time to cover what needs to be covered and show all those films.

I think that good teaching starts with something that the students know (or think they know) and uses that to help them understand the concepts that they don't know. Since some students know virtually nothing about business prior to entering law school, there is a danger that a Business Associations class will feel to those students like the class started with the unknown and built to the more unknown leaving them feeling completely lost.

Those students who had no meaningful experience with actual business operations prior to law school, have had their perceptions of business shaped by films and TV. So I think that Lisa's idea of using film or TV show clips to ground the students in the material can be very useful.

Even though I might not show all the films that I listed, when discussing a case or a point of law, I may reference a very popular or famous movie or show and ask students whether the way that the movie or show depicts how businesses act or are required to act squares with how businesses do act or how the law or markets require businesses to act in reality. This can be useful both when the film or show accurately depicts how businesses operate and when the film or show fails to accurately depict how businesses operate. It is a way of taking something that the students know or are familiar with and using it to build their understanding of the legal and economic concepts that they don't know.


6. Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on September 6, 2006 @ 8:51 | Permalink

I think the pedagogical point of providing context for business law students is well-taken, and that is the best argument for using the movie technique. And I have no objection to using popular culture as the basis for teaching hypotheticals. (Just yesterday, I used the typical plea negotiation at the end of Law & Order to illustrate agency concepts - like when the lawyer accepts a plea on behalf of her client without having appeared to have received instructions.) And I would love to take or teach a class that was entitled something like "Law and Culture: Hollywood, Law, and Business."

Between Business Enterprises and Secured Transactions this semester, I have over 90 students, the overwhelming majority of whom have no familiarity with the business context in which the law is applied either ex ante or ex post. So we spend the better part of the first week of each class talking about the context of setting up a business, or what it means to borrow money and how it happens, before we ever touch the law.

Here's the downside of the movie technique, at least in introducing students to business law. (Larry Ribstein over at Ideoblog has comments on this that are well worth reading.) I'm not sure Citizen Kane or It's a Wonderful Life have corporate themes, much less good corporate themes. What is the corporate theme we take from Frank Capra's populist view of the world? That most people within corporations look and sound like Mr. Potter? Or Orson Welles on the life of William Randolph Hearst. What is the corporate theme? That Charlie Kane squandered the assets of his privately owned corporation promoting the ill-fated career of Susan Alexander? That people who go into business are mostly wealthy dilettantes with the notion one day "I think I'd like to run a newspaper?" Michael Moore is a political provocateur with decent skills as a film editor. (Leni Riefenstahl was a good film maker too.) He is a slicker, more talented Ann Coulter, just coming from a different direction.

I think introducing the subject by teaching our students implicitly that their business clients or business opponents are or will be caricatures is a mistake. From my standpoint, it is like showing the trial scene from "Miracle on 34th Street" (including the one in which the Judge Henry X. Harper, played by Gene Lockhart, goes back to his chambers to consult with political hack William Frawley, the "highest authority") and saying that has a good litigation theme. Yes, it is about a trial, and, yes, it is entertaining, but it treats all the lawyers and judges (except Fred Gailey of course) as buffoons. I wouldn't introduce a Civ Pro or Evidence class with it. (Although when I watched it as a kid, I couldn't understand why they were trying a case in the New York Supreme Court, and it was one of the first mysteries resolved for me when I went to law school.)


7. Posted by Stephen Chamberlain on September 6, 2006 @ 8:57 | Permalink

I suggest Michael Mann's The Insider. It really illustrates how corporate structure and agency relationships can, and do, conflict with both the ethics and interests of corporate-agent actors and the public interest. Not to mention all the practical and interesting legal minutiae throughout that are good conversation starters such as non-disclosure agreements, whistle blower protections, and tortious interference claims.


8. Posted by Larry on September 6, 2006 @ 11:21 | Permalink

I think any class dealing with start-ups or venture capital should begin the course with South Park's "Underpants Gnomes." Pretty good satire of dot-coms.


9. Posted by Elizabeth Brown on September 6, 2006 @ 11:31 | Permalink

Jeff,

I thought that I had made it clear in my last post that it may be useful to discuss the perceptions created by film and when and why they depart from reality. Just because I mention a film in class or show a clip from it does not mean that I am always conveying to my students the message that these films provide are accurate portraits of businesses. In many instances, even with documentaries like "The Corporation", I am trying to get my students to view films more critically and recognize when they are departing from reality (which they don't always do with business portraits prior to law school).

I listed 12 films. You appear to strongly object to four of them - "Its a Wonderful Life", "Citizen Kane", "Wall Street" and "Roger & Me". If you don't find anything useful in these films, no one is requiring you to use them. I certainly was not suggesting that anyone had to use these films, any more than I would suggest that everyone had to adopt the same teaching style. What works for one person may not work for another.

As with any art, everyone does not necessarily view these films the same way or draw the same lessons from them that you are drawing in your post. Everyone can make their own judgments about whether these films can be used in a helpful way in a business law course. For example, Larry Ribstein on his blog discusses how he would teach a course that uses the film "Wall Street." In addition, someone might want to use "Its a Wonderful Life" to point out that savings and loan is a family run business and that Mr. Gower, the drug store owner, and Mr. Martini, the bar owner, operate sole proprietorships. So "Its a Wonderful Life" has many positive portraits of business owners to offset the negative portrait provided by Mr. Potter. What makes someone a hero or a villan in "Its a Wonderful Life" is not their status as a business owner, but how they operate their business. One might then use the comparison of George Bailey and Mr. Potter as business owners to enter into a discussion on corporate social responsibility or lack thereof, which casebooks like Hamilton and Macey's Corporations address.


10. Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on September 6, 2006 @ 13:45 | Permalink

Elizabeth, I understood your comment, and really don't have any objection to using the film clips as a way of highlighting issues in corporate responsibility (though why use fiction when you have Dennis Kozlowski?) And inherent to the medium, my original comment looked rougher than it was meant. It's more a matter of placement and emphasis. Starting a business law class (as I understood Lisa's original post) with those particular films as illustrating "corporate themes" (as I read yours) it seems to me casts a particular slant on the subject, something any professor has a perfect right to do.

I have not seen The Corporation, which sounds like the most balanced of the films on your list. We've already struggled in class with the concept of corporation as juridical "person." But the teaser to students just stepping into this of businesses or corporations as implicitly bad (which as Larry points out is the primary thrust of most Hollywood characterization) is not the way I want to start. I acknowledge that's only my taste.

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