Tur­moil in the cor­ner of­fice

With ‘The Founder,’ Hol­ly­wood re­turns to a fa­vorite sub­ject — the busi­ness mogul.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Lewis Beale

There’s a scene in “The Founder,” the new film about how Ray Kroc es­tab­lished the McDonald’s fast­food 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 un­car­ing cap­i­tal­ism. “The Founder” is ac­tu­ally a nu­anced look at how Kroc rec­og­nized the bril­liance of the fast-food con­cept es­tab­lished by the McDonald brothers of San Bernardino, went into busi­ness with them and, dis­sat­is­fied with the part­ner­ship, es­sen­tially stole the busi­ness from 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 f lat­ter­ing.”

It’s not that Hol­ly­wood cre­ative types are out to tear down the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem; they are, after all, work­ing in a multi­bil­lion-dollar, prof­it­driven in­dus­try. It’s just that in their search for a good story, tales of driven, of­ten un­lik­able, in­di­vid­u­als are sim­ply deemed dra­matic and filmmable.

“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 sin­gle­minded 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.”

Like Charles Foster Kane, the me­dia mogul in “Cit­i­zen Kane.” Or the self­cen­tered vi­sion­ary and dif­fi­cult real-life char­ac­ter in “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, the nar­cis­sism, greed and a lust for power at­tract film­mak­ers. And if there’s one seg­ment of the busi­ness world that seems to com­bine th­ese traits into one big, filmmable 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.”

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 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 head of a 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 Wil­liamson. “... 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 conf lict 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 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.”

Daniel McFad­den Weinstein Co.

MICHAEL KEATON stars as am­bi­tious Ray Kroc in “The Founder.”

Jojo Whilden Road­side Attraction­s

“MAR­GIN CALL,” with Zachary Quinto, left, and Penn Bad­g­ley, fo­cused on an in­vest­ment firm dur­ing the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Fran­cois Duhamel Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios

“STEVE JOBS,” with Michael Stuhlbarg , left, Michael Fass­ben­der and Kate Winslet, showed Ap­ple boss as a dif­fi­cult vi­sion­ary.

Andy Schwartz

MICHAEL DOUGLAS won an Academy Award for lead ac­tor por­tray­ing the ruth­less Gor­don Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street.”

Daniel McFad­den Weinstein Co.

“THE FOUNDER” de­tails how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) gained con­trol of McDonald’s and ex­panded it into a fast-food em­pire.

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