What movies about business tell us about business

What films about business, and corporate skulduggery, reveal about leadership

Once again Oscar season highlights the films of the past year­—a year that brought its fair share of space movies, like The Martian and the return of Star Wars. But if you wanted to see the flick with the most launches, that would be Steve Jobs. Almost the whole movie is set in the minutes before one product unveiling or another.

Spread sheets may never compete with light sabres for cinematic excitement, but business movies are a legitimate genre. They tend to fall into different categories—the superstar CEO/boy genius variety exemplified by Steve Jobs and The Social Network (both written by Aaron Sorkin); the financial meltdown/skullduggery type such as Too Big to Fail, Barbarians at the Gate and the upcoming Wizard of Lies with Robert De Niro as cherubic con man Bernie Madoff; tales of greed and excess at the top like The Wolf of Wall Street and Wall Street; and depictions of Darwinian struggle in the trenches like Glengarry Glen Ross, Margin Call and Boiler Room.

Meanwhile Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank have made business deals into hit TV (never likely to be green-lit: Due Diligence: The Series). Business as entertainment? You bet. And thanks to the success of The Apprentice, Donald Trump was able to take the reality TV aesthetic into politics too.

“I use film clips a lot in my executive leadership programs,” says professor Daniel Skarlicki of UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “They are rich with visual context and can provide a five-minute scene where the students can draw some business-related learning insights from the case.” He quite liked The Social Network: “People have always had a romance with leadership, be it in books or film. They become infatuated with very powerful leaders.”

Business superstars are rarely if ever portrayed like triumphant sports heroes. Their victories are usually pyrrhic—they truly win when they realize the emptiness of their success. “I like Steve Jobs because it reveals that he was extremely unkind and selfish,” Skarlicki says. “He used a lot of people to get where he did. It draws out an important insight on human psychology—that we like to punish people who violate moral and social norms, but we give them a wide latitude when they are high performers.”

Why is it that popular culture prefers to highlight the dark side of business? Is it Hollywood’s pronounced liberal bent? Or is it the pervasive suspicion that, unlike a well-refereed football game, the successful business mogul is seen as the one who refuses to play by the rules? While Skarlicki doesn’t buy into every Hollywood portrayal of high finance—“Wolf of Wall Street was a porn movie with a little bit about a crook,” he says—neither does he feel movies are too hard on business. “Not at all. I think that these films could be much harder on businesses than they currently are,” he insists. “One docu-film that does it right is The Corporation by Joel Bakan. He has harnessed the skills of movie-making to help the world see what is going on.”

When using film to demonstrate leadership Skarlicki does not restrict himself to business-themed films. “Lean on Me provides lots of leadership examples, as does Elizabeth and Ghandi,” he points out.

As for the TV shows, Skarlicki finds them interesting—if somewhat misleading. “I am surprised that these programs are so popular,” he says. “I watch them with great interest because we teach entrepreneurship at UBC and that is what these guys are doing. What is not well known is that there are few deals on Shark Tank and Dragons’ Den that actually close. The sharks are motivated to provide a persona that they are aggressive winners, so they say yes a lot. But they also retain the right to walk away, and they walk away a lot.”

“Films overlook the ordinary moments where very little is happening,” Skarlicki says. “And there are many more of these than the exciting decisions and controversy. Most about business is much more benign.” As in the Western, it is the mavericks and the outlaws that people remember. Aaron Sorkin is never likely to write a script about Warren Buffett.