The Story: “It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers.”
Ah, the wisdom of Jeremy Irons’ John Tuld, the CEO of a fictional brokerage firm on the verge of collapse in pre-meltdown Wall Street. In private, Tuld is even more honest, admitting that he is no more than a salesman with little understanding of what he hawks. He even clicks off 15 other bubble bursts, stretching back to 1637, to illustrate his point: Leaders compromise their principles, employees are tossed out of their jobs, and customers lose their nest eggs all the time. It’s the natural order in Tuld’s view.
Welcome to Margin Call, an underrated classic about what happens when an organization reaches the brink. Here, the worth of the firm’s mortgage-back securities has plummeted, creating potential losses greater than the value of the entire firm! The solution: Dump the toxic assets on unsuspecting investors and firms before word hits the street.
Think the system is rigged? Do you believe that finance leaders are reckless, amoral, and forever on the take? If so, this movie will have you marching and chanting outside your friendly neighborhood Goldman Sachs. Indeed, Margin Call could be summed up as a tale about making tradeoffs and measuring risk, with the public good treated as an afterthought. In the end, the firm moves its assets off the books, nearly poisoning the entire financial system in the process. Careers are ended and reputations destroyed, as the firm doles out pink slips and generous severances to those who went along. Lives may have been ruined, but the firm will chug along as c-suite scapegoats snap up golden parachutes as part of their Faustian bargain. Worse yet, the whistleblowers ultimately accept their tainted promotions, selling out to calm the markets and jumpstart the process anew.
The lesson: Leaders will do anything to preserve their livelihoods and perks…no different than those who came before them. “So you think we might have put a few people out of business today,” Tuld asks in the mother of all monologues. “If this is all for naught then so is everything out there. Its just money; it’s made up: pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987 — Jesus, didn’t that fuck up me up good — 92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this.”
Professors Say: “Maybe Margin Call. The lesson, not a new one, is that we all should be held accountable for our choices.”
– Tomas Obloj, HEC Paris
“Margin Call and Inside Job. The two biggest lessons they can learn from those two movies is that money is addictive, and that at the heart of a big crisis there is a misalignment of incentives.”
– Miguel Antón, IESE Business School
It’s A Wonderful Life
Story: Think Frank Capra’s classic is just something that you break out over the holidays? It might also make for a great business case. Ever wonder if you’re doing more harm than good? Sometimes, it takes a neutral party to highlight the value you bring to the world. That’s what Clarence did for George Bailey, illustrating the events and lives he touched with his courage, sacrifice, and compassion. It didn’t go unnoticed, as George’s customers rallied to bail him out when he needed it most. Every leader is burdened with doubt, even despair. Expected to be examples, they too need to embrace help sometimes. Who knows, maybe that’ll enable someone else to earn their wings in the process?
Professor Says: “The hard-line stance on “shareholder value” (viz Henry Potter) is not the only thing that matters. People matter. Sometimes things that are not so obvious affects many in positive ways. Further, even when not looking, opportunities arise that may be at odds with your personal aspirations (viz George Bailey not being able to travel and go to college). When those causes are important enough, they can alter one’s life in unimaginable ways. It is also good to keep in mind that being the “richest man in town” can be based on things other than money. There are many more bits of wisdom in this movie, both about life as well as business. My family and I watch the movie every year and, without fail, I pick something up that wasn’t meaningful to me before or that I simply missed.”
– Ken Kelley, Notre Dame (Mendoza)
The Story: Too often, we judge others too hasty. This is not a world where everyone can be effortlessly separated into predators and prey. Not all foxes are tax-dodging con artists. Whatever you do, don’t assume rabbits are too small and sweet to do anything more than write traffic tickets. At its core, Zootopia is a movie about the dangers of settling on first impressions and overlooking potential talents. This message extends to how people view themselves too, with Judy Hopps being an example of staying upbeat and pushing limits regardless of what the Chief Bogos of the world say.
Professor Says: “I can’t say I have a favorite business-themed movie, but there are positive lessons that MBA students can learn from non-business-themed movies as well. I’m a huge fan of animated films, and the film Zootopia offers a few lessons: the value of dedication and hard work, overcoming stereotypes and prejudices, pursuing what you’re passionate about despite setbacks, and remaining open to opinions that are different from your own.”
– Eesha Sharma, Dartmouth (Tuck)
Up In the Air
The Story: “How much does your life weigh,” asks George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham to a seminar crowd. “Imagine for a second that you are carrying a backpack. Feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake — your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime — star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.”
Those aren’t just empty paid remarks for Bingham. It is the credo by which he lives. Calling himself a “wake-up call,” Bingham’s job is to travel across the country to personally deliver layoff notices. A silver-tongued grim reaper decked out in a suit, Bingham is lent out to cover for bosses “who don’t have the balls to sack their own employees.” He measures his life in frequent flyer miles, a transient spirit who calls airline hubs and hotel rooms home. A man unto himself, untethered and uninvolved, Bingham personifies living to work over working to live. As he mentors a protégé undergoing her quarter life crisis however, he grows disillusioned with the shallow nature of his relationships and the emptiness of the fresh starts he pitches to laid off workers. By the end of the film, his suave self-assurance fades as he begins to wrestle with the same question as the confused workers he once consoled: “What do I do now?”
Professor Says: “I think the biggest lesson to take away from the movie is that work is important, but it shouldn’t be the top priority in your life.”
– Kristina Rennekamp, Cornell University (Johnson)