Business movies may not be the first place aspiring entrepreneurs think to look for lessons on how to run a successful business. But why not? Many films provide an inside look at the joys and heartaches associated with the hard work of running a startup. They can also provide firm lessons on what not to do. And by framing content in a compelling storyline with a dramatic arc, movies can provide lessons far more memorable than those found in dry business books.
The movies every entrepreneur should watch vary based on who you ask, but the films highlighted in our must-watch list offer a glimpse into the minds and motivations of some noteworthy entrepreneurs, of both admirable and notorious varieties.
This 1987 Oliver Stone flick tells the story of ambitious stockbroker Bud Fox and his toxic relationship with Michael Douglas' iconic Gordon Gekko character. Under the poisonous influence of Gekko ("Greed is good"), Fox eventually becomes entangled in various financial crimes.
While clearly a cautionary tale about greed, entrepreneurs can tease out valuable lessons about the incompatibility of cut-throat capitalism and a moral compass. A business philosophy devoid of ethics can result in legal issues, and vacuous greed is just that: empty.
Jon Favreau's Chef is a road-trip comedy about a fine-dining chef who finds his authentic voice while simultaneously exalting the personal and professional benefit of doing what you love. Chef tells the story of Carl Casper, who walks away from the suffocating restrictiveness and expectations of big-money investors to start a food truck and travel the country with his son and sous-chef.
Entrepreneurs both inside and outside of the restaurant industry can find inspiration in the film's DIY ethic and embrace of passion as a key ingredient to success. Viewers should note the chef's shift from highbrow cuisine to something more accessible: creating an affordable, quality product is a solid business model.
Another cautionary tale about the excesses of Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of Jordan Belfort, his rise to extreme wealth, and his seemingly inevitable personal and professional fall. In addition to a star-studded cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Margot Robbie, this award-winning film was directed by Hollywood icon Martin Scorsese.
The Wolf of Wall Street supplies entrepreneurs with a handy checklist of what not to do. From thoughtless greed to various excesses, the film exposes a rocky version of Wall Street, New York, and stockbrokers incompatible with business ethics and personal morals.
A 2016 biopic of McDonald's businessman Ray Kroc, The Founder outlines the fast-food giant's expansion into an iconic brand and follows Michael Keaton's controversial Kroc as he forces out co-founders Maurice and Richard McDonald. From his beginnings as a traveling salesman to his rise as CEO, Kroc is credited with the fast-food company's rapid global expansion.
In The Founder, current and future entrepreneurs find a true story about uncompromising vision and what it takes to challenge the business status quo. Kroc's ethics are questionable at times, but his influence is undeniable.
Mike Judge's 1999 film Office Space follows protagonist Peter Gibbons and his hilarious, painfully dull existence as a number-cruncher at a software company. After Gibbons and his cohorts eventually bungle an attempt to defraud their company, he ultimately finds a more fulfilling career outside office culture.
While Office Space does not provide tangible tips for successful entrepreneurs, this satirical look at the drudgery of corporate life can prove useful. And even though some office cultures have evolved (albeit slowly), managing a team of uninspired and disengaged employees can prove expensive and fruitless.
Starring Michael Fassbender and written by Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is a biopic of the uncompromising Apple visionary. Released in 2015, this film documents Jobs' tumultuous personal and professional relationships from the company's early days to the celebratory release of Apple's iMac computer in 1998. Steve Jobs offers a portrait of a man whose world-changing tech genius is complicated by his viciousness toward those close to him.
In this film, business owners can revel in the history of one of the most successful companies in history. Similarly, this true story reveals the human cost of having an unshakably tenacious business vision.
Released in 2006, The Pursuit of Happyness is an award-winning, rags-to-riches story that follows Will Smith's Chris Gardner from homelessness to a lucrative career as a stockbroker. At once a Horatio Alger-esque narrative, this true story also reveals the real challenges people of color face when entering a field underscored by social capital.
While The Pursuit of Happyness provides an extreme example of professional guile and grit, entrepreneurs can still glean quite a bit from the film. Themes of self-belief, failure and success, and sheer determination cannot go unnoticed.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is a 2019 documentary highlighting the spectacular failure of entrepreneur Billy McFarland's Fyre Festival. Billed as a luxury music event, patrons arrived expecting a glamorous experience but encountered something more apocalyptic. McFarland's fraud eventually resulted in criminal charges and jail time.
Certainly another cautionary tale, this film highlights the fake-it-til-you-make-it mentality that pervades startups in Silicon Valley. Fyre also sheds light on questionable investing and how dangerous inexperience can be for investors and consumers alike. Entrepreneurs can also note the risks of viral, social media marketing without a viable product.
Written by celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network is a 2010 film that tells the story of Facebook's founding and early rise. Viewers get a close look at billionaire Mark Zuckerberg's time at Harvard, the college antics and happenstance that led to Facebook's creation, and the personal and business conflicts framing the tech company's foundation.
Entrepreneurs see firsthand how uncompromising vision and luck are essential to Facebook-level success. While cautionary at some points, entrepreneurs may also see an inspiring story of a startup that eventually changed the world, for better and/or worse. As a bonus, this film is currently available on Netflix.
Another contemporary story of tech-based fraud, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is a 2019 documentary that showcases the rise and crimes of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. From her precociousness at Stanford to the demise of her startup, Holmes and partner Sunny Balwani stake their reputations on fraudulent claims about inherently shoddy healthcare technology and inevitably get caught.
Similar to Fyre in depicting undeliverable promises, The Inventors shows entrepreneurs that amidst all the bluster of the Silicon Valley business world, a product still needs to work. Ethics and integrity are invaluable to maintaining a strong professional reputation.
There Will Be Blood, an Oscar-winning 2007 film directed by auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, stars Daniel Day-Lewis as the ruthless main character Daniel Plainview. Based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, the film follows the prosperous rise and tragic fall of Plainview. Themes of technological growth and greed pervade, along with ample environmental allusions.
While entrepreneurs may initially struggle to tease out positive lessons from the film, a closer look reveals Plainview as an uncompromising and determined businessman. Even though Day-Lewis' Plainview is far from sympathetic, he demonstrates a level of generosity towards his fellow townspeople. For entrepreneurs, charitable initiatives can do good while enhancing reputations.
As the movies discussed earlier demonstrate, entrepreneurship can be learned in many different settings—for good or bad. In reviewing the options highlighted in this section, consider carefully which might work best for your unique interests and goals.
Many of the entrepreneurs dramatized in our movie picks lacked a formal education, much less an MBA. As their stories demonstrate, real-life experiences can provide invaluable knowledge but can also leave you lacking skill sets and knowledge that go a long way in guarding against failure.
Owning your own business requires a massive investment of time, energy, and money. Some would-be entrepreneurs may feel they need advanced credentials before undertaking such a venture and decide to pursue an MBA with an entrepreneurship concentration. With some schools now providing MBAs in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, students can develop specialized knowledge in business at it relates specifically to entrepreneurial ventures. While the best MBAs in entrepreneurship can set graduates up for success, they may not be necessary for everyone.
Regardless of the type of entrepreneur you identify as, there are likely skills you want to gain to feel more confident and guard against a financial crisis. That said, earning a graduate degree may not make sense with your current phase of life. Many aspiring entrepreneurs who feel this way decide to take individual courses targeted to the subjects they think require the most attention. With many universities now providing both online and in-person courses specific to entrepreneurship, startup founders and successful entrepreneurs alike can expand and build their skills.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org