February 23, 2010
Pro-Business Movies
Posted by Erik Gerding

Lisa asks whether there are any movies that are pro-Big Business.  I can't think of any obvious candidates.  But there are certainly pro-business movies -- which enjoyed their salad days in the mid 1980s (all of which likely went into production well before the 1987 crash).  I would lump these pro-business movies into three categories:

Category One: plucky youngster changes corporate culture and makes old guard realize winning business strategy is to to be childish.

1980s examples: BIG (1988), The Secret of My Success (1987)

Recent equivalent: Elf

How Is this archetype pro-Business?: At first blush, business might be seen as just providing a setting for a standard narrative archetype - like "Fish out of Water."  But these movies are really pro-business because the process of running a business is seen as creative and fulfilling, albeit only if you engage in massive psychological regression.

Variant: Gung Ho (1986) (Plucky middle-agester convinces corporation to re-open or not to close plant and spare jobs -- a critical race scholar could spend a career writing on this one)

Note to law students: this movie archetype points to a surefire route to the top as a junior associate -- convince that grumpus in the corner office that what a law firm needs is more wackiness.

Category Two: a celebration of a creative, underdog entrepreneur at the expense of large corporations.  The basic premise is: small upstart entrepreneur faces off against large corporation and either (a) gets pulverized or (b) miraculously prevails.  Without fail, the entrepreneur has more homespun family values or believes in the virtue of "craft."

1980s examples: Tucker (1988 - gets pulverized), Baby Boom (1987 - miraculously prevails)

Foodie Variant: Big Night (1996 - gets pulverized)

Recent equivalent: Who knows? (with two kids, we have to be kind of picky about movies these days)

How is this archetype pro-Business?: If the entrepreneur triumphs, it celebrates innovation in American business.  If the entrepreneur fails, it is a a lament/elegy/dirge/[insert SAT synonym]

Note: This category would probably include the most pro-capitalist movie of all time - Risky Business (1983).

Category Three: billionaire industrialist moonlights as superhero.

Examples: Batman, Ironman

How is this archetype pro-Business?:  Maybe the protagonist has to be rich only to provide a plausible explanation for all the cool toys.  Another reading is that Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark have served as role models for Bill Gates and the Google guys.  Little known fact: both Wayne and Stark enterprises employ a dual class share structure to allow their founders to retain control and pursue less-than-profitable technologies (OK - I made that up).  These movies are not as pro-business as the comic book originals, because the industrialists in the cinema version now have a more serious case of guilt about making money from the arms trade.

A more oblique strategy for promoting big business -- tear down the competition. Cases in point: The Fountainhead (Big Government), On the Waterfront (Big Labor).

Why is it so hard to find a movie that celebrates large corporations square-on? For the same reason we celebrate Rosie the Riveter for helping win WWII and not corporate America and superior logistics -- we like to believe individuals matter more rather than systems.

And for the same reason it is no fun to root for the Yankees.

Update:  Over at Ideoblog, Larry Ribstein responds to Lisa's question and links to his paper, Wall Street & Vine, that argues that Hollywood is not so much anti-business as anti-capitalist.

Here's another way of framing Lisa's question.  If you wanted to celebrate big business, how would you do that in an interesting screenplay? 

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