MBA programs teach many complex and nuanced principles and practices of modern business. Not all of them—not even most of them, probably—would make for a good blockbuster movie. They haven't yet made the movie that both entertains and teaches the Black-Scholes-Merton model, nor has there been a successful cinematic celebration of the latest breakthroughs in supply chain management.
That doesn't mean that the movies are entirely devoid of graduate-level business lessons, however. The world of business involves many of the core elements of good drama: ethical dilemmas, high-stakes risk-taking, and tests of personal fortitude, to name just a few. Work makes up a significant part of most adults' days, so any drama that takes a serious look at work and working conditions probably has something to say about the human condition. Not every movie has to end in a wedding or the apocalypse to entertain, compel, and even instruct audiences.
We've collected 11 movies that address critical MBA-level issues. They're all excellent movies, worth watching simply for their entertainment value. Yet they also speak to the concerns that should preoccupy you as you study for your master's in business, or as you make your way in the world as a successful businessperson. We've listed the movies in reverse chronological order.
The Big Short follows three stories that, together, illuminate the causes of the 2008 housing market crisis. All three follow characters who, anticipating the coming calamity, are devising strategies to short the market. To help make sense of the complex financial concepts central to the stories, director Adam McKay intersperses cameos from non-characters (economist Richard Thaler, actress Selena Gomez, chef Anthony Bourdain) to explain them. The result is an entertaining dramedy that does a surprisingly good job of teaching. With Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, and Steve Carell.
Another movie about the financial crisis of 2008; what other business subject was going to hold a mass audience's attention in the early 2010s? Margin Call takes place over a 24-hour window as the potential extent of the impending financial collapse becomes apparent.
Margin Call is a strange action-thriller in which no guns are brandished, no lives threatened; instead, the action centers on dumping toxic assets before the markets realize that they are worthless. The movie raises numerous questions about ethics and the need for market regulation, and ultimately of whether such failures are inevitable under our financial system. The New Republic called it "the smartest movie you'll ever see about the financial crisis." With Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore.
On its surface, Moneyball is about baseball and sabermetrics, the system of statistical analysis created by Bill James. Dig deeper, though, and you see that Moneyball is about any systematic data-driven effort to identify and exploit undervalued assets. The film shows how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) assembled their 2002 team on a tightly limited budget by collecting inexpensive, underappreciated players. Beane's struggles against entrenched conventional thinkers—including the team's head scout Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock) and its manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—deftly illustrate the challenges innovators face in any corporate environment, particularly one as entrenched and conservative as professional baseball.
Beane's experiments resulted in much better Athletics teams than the team's budget warranted, but no championships. His approach has been vindicated, however, by wealthier teams that have adopted it and then proceeded to championships, including the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros. In fact, you can argue that pretty much every organization in baseball now uses sabermetrics to construct its roster.
The ultimate start-up movie, The Social Network tells the story of Marc Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Facebook, from its inception to the inevitable lawsuits that followed its successes. While the movie is primarily about Zuckerberg—his motivations, his aspirations, his relentless drive—it also offers plenty of details about how to structure partnerships and the nascent companies that emanate from them. It's possible that no movie has ever before wrung so much drama from the act of diluting someone's stock shares.
Among its many virtues, Mike Judge's farce Office Space offers a thick manual on how not to manage employees. As the movie's central character Peter Gibbons (played by Ron Livingston) puts it, his job at Initech is designed to motivate him to "work just hard enough not to be fired." Gibbons spends his days fixing Y2K code, completing TPS reports (nope, no one ever explains what they are), answering to eight different bosses, and, most of all, staring at his desk. A hypnosis mishap leaves Peter honest and carefree, setting up a hilarious scene in which he describes his typical day to two consultants ("the Bobs") tasked with downsizing Initech's staff.
Mike Judge has a particular genius for depicting failed systems; see his movie Idiocracy and his HBO series Silicon Valley, another tech-industry satire, for other examples. His work has become so iconic and so widely regarded that many MBA professors use clips from Office Space to illustrate essential points in their lectures.
Corporate malfeasance is disproportionately represented in the movies because, honestly, who wants to go see a movie about a company that never lies, treats its employees fairly, and takes its civic responsibilities seriously? A movie needs a villain, and boy, does The Insider have one: the tobacco industry. The CBS television network doesn't come out looking so hot, either.
The movie stars Russell Crowe as Jeffrey Wigland, a disgruntled tobacco scientist who—much like real-life Russell Crowe—appears always to be just on the verge of punching someone. Al Pacino portrays Lowell Bergman, a committed 60 Minutes producer whose efforts to reveal Big Tobacco's corrupt practices are constantly thwarted by the network. Issues of business ethics permeate every scene, from the tobacco industry's flagrant lies about the dangers of its products to Wigland's willingness to violate his NDA to CBS News' prioritizing of corporate profits over accurate reporting. This film would provide plenty of fodder for several productive roundtable discussions in any MBA program, or over beers at the campus rathskeller. Like real life, The Insider does not offer a tidy happy ending.
For a bare-knuckles depiction of the dog-eat-dog business world, look no further than Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's play-turned-movie about four real estate salesmen desperately competing not to be fired. The movie presents a dark, albeit sometimes viciously funny, view of business and humanity, and it remains relentlessly grim to the bitter end. If you watch nothing else, check out Alec Baldwin's movie-stealing "motivational" speech.
Is Tucker: The Man and His Dream a success story? That depends on how you define success. If building an industry-dominating company and making scads of money is your definition, then no: by those measures, automobile maker Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) was a failure. If, however, you define success as setting a lofty goal and accomplishing it, then yes, Tucker was a success and a genuine business hero.
The movie opens in 1948 with Tucker, an engineer, imagining "the car of the future." His "Tucker Torpedo," he insists, will combine style with such novel safety features as swiveling headlights, a popout windshield, disc brakes, and seat belts (yes, young people, there was a time when automobiles did not have seat belts). Tucker proves as audacious and capable an entrepreneur as he is a designer: he manages to find funding and an old Dodge plant in which to chase his vision. Like Moneyball, Tucker shows how conservative forces challenge innovators; like The Insider, it illustrates how established businesses are not above shooting dirty pool when their interests are threatened. You will be humming "Hold That Tiger" for days after watching this one.
Yes, The Godfather is about an entrepreneur who claims to be in the olive oil import business. That's not why it's on this list. We've included it for two reasons. One: it's peppered with lessons that are as applicable to the 'legitimate' business world as they are to the crime world inhabited by Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), Sonny Corleone (James Caan), and Tom Hayden (Robert Duvall). When Vito tells Sonny "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking," he could be talking to a regional manager involved in a critical negotiation with a potential vendor. When Michael explains that his decisions are "not personal" but rather "strictly business," he demonstrates why he, and not his older brother Sonny, is the one with genuine leadership abilities.
Which brings us to the second reason: these parallels aren't accidental. Director Francis Ford Copolla has constructed The Godfather to highlight the parallels between legitimate business and the underworld. Throughout the film and its sequel (Godfather Part II), the Corleones cultivate and reward loyalty, deliver reliable customer service to those they work with, and punish competitors who overstep agreed-upon limits. "All my people are businessmen," Michael Corleone asserts in Godfather Part II. It's a theme that would be developed more fully and with even more nuance by David Simon in The Wire, which would be on this list if it were a movie and not a television series.
John Boulting's 1959 satire I'm All Right, Jack focuses a cynical lens on British society, sparing no one: aristocrats, businesspeople, labor leaders and the rank and file, and government officials all come up wanting. The film's ostensible hero is Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael), an upper-class twit whose pampered upbringing has left him incapable of any meaningful work. Family connections land him a job at a missile factory, where he bumbles his way into discovering corruption both in management and labor. It seems everyone but Windrush is motivated by greed and/or self-preservation; the implication is that Windrush would be too if he weren't so naive and dim-witted.
I'm All Right, Jack critiques enterprises driven by nothing more than the quest for more and bigger profits. As it pokes its nose into the boardrooms and labor halls, the movie explores the various ways in which well-intentioned institutions—management seeking to improve business, unions championing the interests of labor—are corrupted by humans. It would all be too bleak to bear but for the fact that the movie is hilarious. Among the cast are many stalwarts of British comedy, including Terry-Thomas and Peter Sellers.
Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, extolled the benefits of specialization and mass production, correctly predicting that they would explode output and profits. He was less voluble on their effects on workers; Karl Marx came along to fill that gap about a half-century later. Perhaps no movie better captures Marx's take on the deleterious effects of mass production more astutely or more hilariously than Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Through its 86-minute runtime, Modern Times wanders from factory to prison to a mental institution to a cafe. The first 15 minutes, however, are devoted to the most effective takedown of depersonalizing jobs ever committed to film. Many consider it Chaplin's masterpiece.
Wait a minute, you're doubtless saying if you've ever seen The Princess Bride (and if you haven't, go watch it now—it is tremendously entertaining)—that movie has nothing to do with business. It's true, there's no commerce in this romantic fantasy. We've included it here because it includes one scene that just about every MBA economics professor uses to illustrate game theory: the scene in which Wesley and Vizzini engage in a battle of wits.
Here's a second bonus scene that you'll probably see in your economics class: John Nash's explanation of equilibrium game theory from A Beautiful Mind.
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