'The Founder' is the latest film to give business moguls a tough time

There’s a scene in “The Founder,” the new film about how Ray Kroc established the McDonald’s fast-food empire, during which Kroc explains his business philosophy. “Business is war,” he says. “It’s dog eat dog, rat eat rat. If my competitor were drowning, I’d walk over and put a hose right in his mouth.”

Although that sounds harsh, the film doesn’t really make Kroc — played by Michael Keaton — look like the poster child for rapacious, uncaring capitalism. “The Founder” is actually a rather nuanced look at how Kroc recognized the brilliance of the fast-food concept established by the McDonald brothers of San Bernardino, went into the franchise business with them and, dissatisfied with the partnership, essentially stole the business out from under them — legally.

“There’s this dichotomy that he’s a visionary and a leech,” says Robert D. Siegel, who wrote the screenplay for director John Lee Hancock’s film. “Is he a genius, or mooching off someone else’s genius? You can say he didn’t have an original thought, but he had the idea to go big. What he wanted to do with McDonald’s was as revolutionary as the brothers’ idea in changing the way food is produced.”

“The Founder” is the latest example of how business people and business in general have been portrayed in the movies. And from “Citizen Kane” to “Wall Street,” “Margin Call” to “Steve Jobs,” it has not, for the most part, been a pretty picture.

“It’s a mixed bag, but more on the negative side,” says Josh Eliashberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “You hear a lot of negative views in the media — Enron, BP, VW, all sorts of scandals, so people associate big business with something negative.”

“The portrayal is often quite precise and pointed,” adds Jennifer Chatman, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “The attributes that are familiar to us are a kind of self-interest, a drive for wealth, a questionable ethical stance and a willingness to sacrifice values for financial gain. Most Hollywood depictions of business leaders, and this is particularly true of women leaders, are fairly intense and not flattering.”

It’s not that Hollywood creative types are out to tear down the capitalist system; they are, after all, working in a multi-billion dollar, profit-driven industry. It’s just that in their search for a good story, the kind that will attract audiences, tales of driven, often unlikable, individuals are simply deemed more dramatic and filmable.

“People are interested in story,” says Glenn Williamson, co-head of the producer’s program at UCLA’s School of Theater, TV and Film. “It’s all about finding the specific story and world that are cinematic. I don’t think there’s a blanket disdain for capitalism; it just might be easier to portray ambitious and single-minded people in a negative light.”

Adds Jason Feifer, editor in chief of Entrepreneur Magazine: “There’s no movie to make if there’s no complex figure, and that’s what makes for interesting storytelling. The people who get ‘movieized’ are the ones who have stark sides to them.”

Like Charles Foster Kane, the media mogul in “Citizen Kane.” Or the self-centered visionary and difficult real-life character “Steve Jobs.” Mr. “Greed Is Good” Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street.” And the desperate real estate salesmen in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

In these and many other cases it’s the combination of narcissism, greed and a lust for power that attracts filmmakers. And if there’s one segment of the business world that seems to combine these traits into one big, filmable bundle —  almost a genre unto itself —  it is movies about banking and the financial services industries. Films like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Big Short,” “Equity,” “Margin Call,” several projects about Bernie Madoff, and many more, are catnip for filmmakers.

The financial markets are “such an easy target,” says Chatman. “It’s so obvious that the main goal is making money; it’s the epitome of the business orientation. And we have seen the most abuse and unseemly behavior in the financial services industry; there are a lot of stories there.”

Entrepreneur Magazine’s Feifer also feels that the tobacco (“The Insider,” “Thank You for Smoking”) and oil industries (“There Will Be Blood,” “Giant”) along with Wall Street, are prime topics for film treatment because they are “businesses that operate with some level of secrecy, and industries that feel untouchable and have access to levers of power, which makes them easy villains. It all depends on how easy it is to humanize or dehumanize a business.”

What this all means is that when it comes to positive business portrayals, it is the individual entrepreneur or business owner who is easiest to empathize with. Think “Joy,” the story of the New York housewife who invented a revolutionary new mop. Or the 1988 film “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” about a man who took on the Big Three auto giants. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” whose George Bailey, the altruistic head of a family-owned, small-town building and loan, is probably the most sympathetic portrayal of a banker ever filmed.

“A small person starting a business, starting something from nothing, that’s more accessible,” says UCLA’s Williamson. “As a country we celebrate small business, and it’s easier to root for someone in that context.”

“Conflict has to come from somewhere,” adds Feifer. “If you’re really big and successful, that conflict has to be internal. If you are an entrepreneur, the conflict can be external, because you are going up against a difficult world, and people want to root for you. And that’s what the audience wants, they want to root for the underdog.”

So just as it’s not necessary to be a self-centered jerk to be successful in business, ruthlessness is not an essential element of the business movie genre. But it sure doesn’t hurt.

“The stereotype of the business vantage point, this is the version Hollywood has focused on,” says Chatman. “CEOs are more likely to be high on narcissism, they are more apt to be self-interested, but that’s not the whole story. The idea these are only self-interested folks is a bit shortsighted.”

And yet, adds “The Founder’s” Siegel, “The essence of any movie is drama. If there are wonderful businessmen who are not polarizing and difficult, they wouldn’t make a good movie subject. [Business] attracts a certain type of person, and to succeed you have to make fairly ruthless, cold decisions a lot of the time. It practically demands that personality type.”

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