6 Business Lessons From Hollywood

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- There's a word that describes films that take you painstakingly behind the scenes of an industry: "documentary." Creative license, however, is the rule of thumb for Hollywood. Criminal trials, for instance, are always about the dramatic surprise witness or tense cross-examination, rarely about the process of jury selection and arguing over citations.

As shorthand as their approach may be, there are plenty of movies that tackle the finer points of Wall Street, investing and trading. The following are some movies that give popcorn-munchers some insight into the world of business and investing:

Trading Places
A lot of topics lend themselves to a good comedy: Boy meets girl. Nerdy campers beat bullies. Fish out of water navigates and embarrasses high society. Frat house makes dean's life miserable.

A trading pit hardly seems the typical setting for a laugh fest -- don't expect to see Jack Black bumbling his way through Short Puts: The Motion Picture any time soon -- and yet the classic 1983 Eddie murphy/Dan Aykroyd flick Trading Places triumphs using the commodities marketplace as its backdrop.

The basic setup of the film has two old, rich men (played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), the owners of the Duke & Duke commodities brokerage, torturing Aykroyd's child of privilege, Louis Winthorpe III, by bankrupting and replacing him with a homeless con man, Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) as part of a cruel wager.

The backdrop to that bet, and the subsequent revenge upon them, includes several scenes where commodity trading is explained in simple and effective terms. In the process, even someone more accustomed to Comedy Central than CNBC will walk away with a better grasp of that marketplace.

The rich antagonists get their comeuppance via a con that combines the best thinking of their one-time marks. Duke & Dukes' short-selling scheme in orange juice futures is ruined thanks to a false crop forecast report and a feat of market timing (though the SEC might have a word with our heroes' use of insider information and numerous other professional lapses).

Not only do you get a crash course in commodities trading; the film, in its final moments, also offers the sort of pep rally moment that might be far more effective than any motivational poster a firm could hang in the break room. As he brings Eddie Murphy's now-reformed hustler onto the floor of the exchange, Aykroyd's character imparts the following advice:

"Think big. Think positive. Never show any sign of weakness. Always go for the throat. But low, sell high. Fear? That's the other guy's problem. Nothing you have ever experienced can prepare you for the unbridled carnage you are about to witness. The Super Bowl? The World Series? They don't know what pressure is. In this building it is either kill or be killed. You make no friend in the pits and you take no prisoners. One minute you are up half a million dollars in soybeans. The next -- boom -- your kids don't go to college and they've repossessed your Bentley."

Glengarry Glen Ross
The motivational speech that closes Trading Places pales in comparison with the brutal tour de force delivered by Alec Baldwin in the film version of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross, a savage, brutal take on sales and real estate.

It may take place beyond Wall Street, but there's little doubt similar words (presented here abridged and safe for work) have been uttered many times behind the closed doors of hedge funds and other high stakes firms:

"Put that coffee down. Coffee's for closers only. Do you think I'm expletive with you? ... The bad news is you've got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting tonight ... Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. 'Cause we're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired ... Only one thing counts in this life. Get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me, you expletive expletive ... A-B-C. A-always, B-be, C-closing. You see this watch? That watch cost more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much you make? You see, pal, that's who I am. And you're nothing. Nice guy? I don't give a expletive. Good father? Expletive you, go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here? Close."

Pursuit of Happyness
A more uplifting view of things comes from the Wil Smith tearjerker Pursuit of Happyness, based on the true story of Chris Gardner.

Though the movie rearranges some real-life details for the sake of plot structure, the basics are no less inspiring. Gardner loses all of his family's savings in a sketchy investment deal. Left homeless, his expertise solving a Rubik's cube catches the eye of a stockbroker who, as a manager for Dean Witter Reynolds, gets him accepted into a training program.

Hiding the fact he is homeless from his fellow interns, Gardner -- dashing from shelters to work each day -- excels, proves an asset in retaining key clients and is offered full-time employment. He eventually parlays this experience into becoming co-founder of his own multimillion-dollar brokerage firm and a globally known philanthropist.

The lesson? Anyone can exceed in the world of finance if they are smart and dedicated and persevere. Also, a firm is only as good as its talent, and cultivating that human touch can mean as much as promised returns. Too sugary? Well, it is Hollywood.

Wall Street
"Greed is good."

That famous line from the movie Wall Street, as mouthed by Michael Douglas, wasn't just an ear-grabbing line of dialogue; it summed up the mantra of the go-go 1980s.

Much of the film centers on corporate raider Gekko's mentoring/corruption of Charlie Sheen's eager, conflicted Bud Fox, a junior-level stockbroker.

The film, up until the time where crime meets punishment, gives us a dark view of things. Good, quality research fails to get results. But underhanded dealings, corporate espionage, stock price manipulation, insider information and putting profits ahead of people does the trick.

The denouement involves the attempt to buy a small airline, union busting and a plot twist that makes the underhanded scheme decidedly personal for Bud. Throw in some feds, a wiretap and a regained conscience and Gekko goes from Armani to an orange jumpsuit.

Does Gekko learn his lesson? That answer is left to last year's sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a film that shows us it takes a thief to spot a crook by casting an out-of-prison Gekko as an unheeded prophet, taking time out from his quest to be a billionaire to warn everyone that the crash of 2007-08 is coming. Subtlety was never a strong suit for director Oliver Stone.

A lesson any level of investor needs to hear is that you can't time the markets. No matter what omens, headlines or hunches you have, only a fool tries to know peaks and valleys with profitable regularity.

Darren Aronofsky's 1998 film Pi drives home that point with a plot that manages to include the titular mathematical concept, the Fibonacci sequence, the Torah, God's name (hint: its not "Roger"), board games and psychic visions into its lead character's efforts to predict and manipulate the stock market.

Short answer: it doesn't work. In fact, the market crashes as an unintended consequence.

For those who scoff at the idea of trying to maximize returns by placing blind faith in outrageously complex mathematics, we have two words: "flash crash."

Tommy Boy
Tommy Boy, a 1995 film starring David Spade and the late Chris Farley, offers a probably missed lesson for small-business owners everywhere: Always have a succession plan.

When the father of Farley's well-meaning but spastic, dim-witted lummox Thomas Callahan III passes away unexpectedly, the family's auto parts company (for reasons of bank debt and divorce) is in danger of falling into the unscrupulous hands of a sleazy rival (Dan Aykroyd, making his second appearance on our list). His plan is to capitalize on the brand's reputation while cutting quality and laying off employees.

OK, maybe there isn't really much of a lesson here at all. First off, what father would want a son that goofy to take the reins? There is also a problematic plot device that hinges on Spade and Farley going on a cross-country road trip to sell a set number of brake parts as a contest of sorts to appease creditors. Maybe the ultimate takeaway is to make sure to have an iron-clad will and succession plan, since otherwise you'll be leaving the family fortune to a "fat guy in a little coat."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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