Is American Culture Becoming More Pro-Business?

In Capitalism: Hollywood’s Miscast Villain, a piece I wrote in 2010 for the Wall Street Journal, I described the slew of movies and television shows featuring mass-murdering corporate villains including “The Fugitive,” “Syriana,” “Mission Impossible II,” “Erin Brockovich,” “The China Syndrome” and “Avatar,” and Hollywood’s not so subtle attacks on capitalism with characters like Jabba the Hut in the Star Wars universe and the Ferengi in Star Trek. I explained some reasons for Hollywood’s antipathy to capitalism:

Directors and screenwriters see the capitalist as a constraint, a force that prevents them from fulfilling their vision. In turn, the capitalist sees the artist as self-indulgent. Capitalists work hard to produce what consumers want. Artists who work too hard to produce what consumers want are often accused of selling out. Thus even the languages of capitalism and art conflict: a firm that has “sold out” has succeeded, but an artist that has “sold out” has failed.

…Hollywood share[s] Marx’s concept of alienation, the idea that under capitalism workers are separated from the product of their work and made to feel like cogs in a machine rather than independent creators. The lowly screenwriter is a perfect illustration of what Marx had in mind—a screenwriter can pour heart and soul into a screenplay only to see it rewritten, optioned, revised, reworked, rewritten again and hacked, hacked and hacked by a succession of directors, producers and worst of all studio executives. A screenwriter can have a nominally successful career in Hollywood without ever seeing one of his works brought to the screen. Thus, the antipathy of filmmakers to capitalism is less ideological than it is experiential. Screenwriters and directors find themselves in a daily battle between art and commerce, and they come to see their battle against “the suits” as emblematic of a larger war between creative labor and capital.

However, I also noted that some good stories could be told if Hollywood would only put aside their biases and open their eyes to the world:

…how many [movies] feature people who find their true selves in productive work? Not many, which is a shame, since the business world is where most of us live our lives. Like many works of literature, Hollywood chooses for its villains people who strive for social dominance through the pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. But the ordinary business of capitalism is much more egalitarian: It’s about finding meaning and enjoyment in work and production.

Well, perhaps things are changing. Three recent movies do a good job highlighting a different perspective on capitalism: Flaming Hot, Air and Tetris.

Flaming Hot (Disney) tells the story of a janitor and his improbable rise to the top of the corporate world via leveraging his insights into his Mexican-American heritage and culture. The details of the story are probably false but no one ever said a good story had to be true. A standout aspect of the film is Richard Montanez’s palpable excitement witnessing the Frito Lay factory’s operations — his awe of the technology, the massive machines churning out potato chips, and his joy at being part of a vibrant, productive enterprise, quirks and all. Montanez does find meaning and enjoyment in work and production. Flaming Hot also skillfully emphasizes the often-underestimated significance of marketing, which is frequently brushed off as superfluous or even evil. Incidentally, does “Flaming Hot” contain a subtle nod to the great Walter “E.” Williams?

Air (Amazon Prime) is about a shoe contract. Boring? Not at all. The shoe was the Air Jordan and Air is about Nike’s efforts to court Jordan and his family with a record-breaking and precedent shattering revenue percentage deal. Nike was not united on going all in on Jordan and at the time it was a much smaller firm than it is today so a lot was at stake. Jordan wanted to go with Adidas. His mother convinced him to hear Nike out. Jordan’s mother comes across as very astute, as she almost certainly was, although it seems more probable that it was Jordan’s agent, David Falk who engineered the percentage contract. Regardless, this is a good movie about entrepreneurship. Directed by Ben Affleck, who also portrays Phil Knight, “Air” showcases Affleck’s directorial prowess, previously demonstrated in “Argo,” a personal favorite for personal reasons. 

Tetris (Apple) is also a story about legal contracts. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, multiple teams race to license the Tetris video game from Elektronorgtechnica the Soviet state owned enterprise that presumptively held the rights as the employer of the inventor, Alexey Pajitnov. Gorbachev and Robert Maxwell both make unlikely appearances in this remarkable story. One aspect which was surprising even to me, all the players take the rule of law very seriously. A useful reminder of the importance of property rights and a sound judiciary to the capitalist process.

While these films may not secure a spot among cinema’s timeless classics, each is engaging, skillfully made, and entertaining. Moreover, each movie offer insightful commentary on different facets of the capitalist system. Bravo to Hollywood!

Addendum: See also my review of Guru one of the most important free market movies ever made.