SUPERCUT MONTAGE: "IT'S JUST BUSINESS" One after another, we what seems like dozens of evil businessmen from films and television shows as they reveal their villainous plans on screen, each time saying some variant of "It's not personal. It's just business", before committing a heinous act against an innocent bystander or our protagonists. The cuts are quick and mixed, with some characters starting, re-starting, and finishing each others' sentences; and later with multiple examples of the characters committing their crimes. This sequence becomes an avalanche of evidence demonstrating exactly what Hollywood thinks of "business". MOTION GRAPHIC: OUT OF FRAME TITLES The last evil businessman continues his crime as the OOF Titles come into view. SEAN Welcome to Out of Frame. Today, I want to talk about a question that I've been thinking about for a really, really long time: Why does Hollywood seem to hate the idea of business? CLIP: "IT'S JUST BUSINESS" BLAM! SEAN If our opening montage wasn't clear enough, just think back to all the movies and TV shows you've ever watched and ask yourself... Whenever you see a businessman wearing a pinstripe suit appear on screen, do you assume he's a good guy or a bad guy? My bet is that you see the businessman and automatically think of him as bad. And... Why wouldn't you? For decades, almost any businessman on screen has been some variation of Gordon Gekko -- a greedy, rich, slimeball who would toss their own grandmother off a cliff to make a buck. The evil businessman trope is, at this point, so well established in film and television that it's ridiculously predictable. Boring, even. The minute "business guy" shows up, you already know he's going to be a jerk. CLIP: PRESIDENT LORD BUSINESS President Business cackles as he destroys whole cities in The Lego Movie. SEAN It's so common and so consistent that now, writers can rely on our intrinsic dislike of businessmen to subvert expectations, like the character of Alastair Krei in BIG HERO 6, who -- spoilers! -- is introduced as a sleazy "tech business guy" but turns out not to be the actual villain. We see PROFESSOR CALLAGHAN remove is Kabuki mask. Of course, in spite of ultimately doing nothing wrong and in fact offering our hero Hiro basically everything he ever wanted with no particular strings attached, Krei was still presented as a bad guy (and a coward) at the end of the movie. CLIP: ALASTAIR KREI COWERS IN FEAR SEAN The point is, this view of business is overwhelming in popular culture, and this is disconcerting to me for two major reasons. First... It's just... Not true. Business is not only not our society's greatest source of evil, it is the process by which all of our lives are constantly improved every day. Business men and women are your family, friends, neighbors, and, well... Your co-workers. They're not disproportionately murderers as Law & Order would suggest, nor are they inherently more greedy, less empathetic or kind than anyone else. They are everyone else. We all interact with people every day who go to work in order to support themselves and their families by hopefully producing some good or service that is valuable to other people, so to vilify business and business people as souless destroyers is to vilify our friends and neighbors and to belittle their contributions to society. But... That brings me to the second major reason why Hollywood's portrayal of these people as uniquely prone to evil is troubling: What people see in every movie and TV show they watch affects the way they think. SEAN This second point seems to be one of the more controversial ones I make on Out of Frame, but it's got lots of scientific support. There's almost too much to say about this, but the stories we read, watch, or hear affect our brains in powerful ways. SEAN The late Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, Roger Ebert said that "Movies are like a machine that generates empathy," and the more we learn about how our brains work, the more we find out how true that idea really is. We see an IMAGE of Paul J. Zak's book, "The Moral Molecule". Research from neuroescientists like Paul J. Zak, author of "The Moral Molecule" has shown that we experience a release of oxytocin -- the neurochemical responsible for trust, empathy, and social bonding -- when we engage with characters in a story. And, the thing is... Our brains really don't differentiate between stories that are real or fictional, so as a result, when we see a believable story that captures our attention we cannot help but internalize aspects of that story into how we see the world. We frequently even see ourselves as part of the story, making it more personal in the process. We see an IMAGE of "The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives" by Melanie C. Green & Timothy C. Bock [] SEAN This effect is called Narrative Transportation, and it causes us to simulate the emotions, and even to mimic the actions and ideas of the characters on screen. We see an IMAGE of the GREGORY BERNS/EMORY UNIVERSITY STUDY on long-term effects of narrative stories []. SEAN And the more we do this, the more it affects the way we think longer term. A 2013 study from Emory University's Center for Neuropolicy showed that reading stories significantly changed research subjects' neural connectivity in the regions associated with story comprehension and the ability to understand different perspectives. And these effects were persistent for several days. We see an IMAGE of "The Impact of Electronic Media Violence: Scientific Theory and Research" by L. Rowell Huesmann [] SEAN Narrative Transportation is also why a lot of people get concerned about sexuality and violence in film & television and try to keep their kids away from that kind of content. Exposure to fictional violence increases a child's likelihood of violent behavior in very similar ways as if they had experienced real violence themselves. The point is... Narrative Transportation created by storytelling is the most effective means of getting people to understand and internalize behaviors, values, and ideas. And for getting those ideas to stick. We see images of GRIMM'S FAIRYTALES, AESOP'S FABLES, etc. It's probably why virtually all of the core moral lessons taught across cultures have always been transmitted via some form of dramatic storytelling. CLIP: GARETH EDWARDS KEYNOTE SXSW 2017 GARETH EDWARDS "I believe that what's sort of going on is, as a race, we're kind of immortal - we reproduce and sort of have clones of ourselves - but the one thing you can't reproduce is experience. And so human bodies are like hardware, but stories are like the software that we sort of download into a child." SEAN That was Star Wars Rogue One Director, Gareth Edwards and he's is probably right. As a film-maker myself, I know just how powerful the medium can be in terms of influencing the way people think. But... In the immortal words of Ben Parker... CLIP: Sam Raimi's "Spider-man" (2002). UNCLE BEN PARKER "With great power comes great responsibility." SEAN So. The question is this: What happens when we present business and business-people as nothing but thieves and murderers in all the stories we're telling each other week after week? And what if we do that for 30-40 years? We see more examples of EVIL BUSINESSMEN, such as Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborne from Spider-man, then perhaps on to The Vulture from Spider-man Homecoming and Darren Cross turning his critic into goo from Ant-man. SEAN When kids (and adults) see evil businessman after evil businessman on screen, they can't help but get the sense that all businessmen must be evil as well -- even in real life. And it's not a big stretch to say that for a lot of people, this influences them to believe that the very idea of "business", or at least "capitalism", must actually create these kinds of villains. We see IMAGES associated with each study: Harvard ( and Gallup ( SEAN Although there's still fairly widespread support for entrepreneurship in general, a 2016 Harvard University survey of 18-29 year olds found that 51% of young Americans say they don't support capitalism. And according to Gallup from the same year, 55% of people in that age group said they had a "positive view" of socialism. Is any of this surprising when these are the values and ideas expressed in most of our popular culture for decades? And to be clear, this vilification of business wasn't always so dominant in entertainment and media. In one of my favorite scenes in movie history from Billy Wilder's 1956 film, Sabrina, Humphrey Bogart's Linus Larabee explains what business actually is to his playboy trust-fund baby brother David, played by William Holden. CLIP: SABRINA SCENE LINUS LARRABEE "It's purely coincidental of course..." SEAN For Linus and for most of the entrepreneurs I've had the pleasure of knowing over the years, business isn't really even about making money, and certainly not at the expense of other people. It's about creating something new and useful, and bringing it to the world so that it can benefit other people. In Sabrina, Bogart uses a bit of sarcasm to make the point, but I won't... It's not purely coincidental that kids in the poorest parts of the world suddenly have dental care, and shoes, and time for going to the movies when their countries make it easier to do business. We see IMAGES of the decline in poverty & child labor from Hans Rosling, and then a graphic comparing Frasier's Economic Freedom of the World ranking to Unicef Child Labor rates. SEAN We've seen incredible reductions of poverty and child labor, along with massive improvements in social equality, public health and even environmental outcomes in places like India and China just in the last 30 years. And all of that has come as a result of opening up their economies to trade, reducing state-control over their industries, allowing private citizens to form businesses and own property, and basically adopting more economic freedom for everyone. CLIP: MILTON FRIEDMAN ON DONAHUE [ -- 1:00+] MILTON "In the only cases in which the masses have escape the kind of grinding poverty you're talking about - the only cases in recorded history - are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade." SEAN I feel like I shouldn't have to say this, but before we move on, I want to be clear: Overall, business is good for society. Really good. Unequivocally good. It's how we come together with our own unique skills and ideas and actually create new wealth. We see images from SEAN Yet in spite of a massive amount of evidence to the contrary, according to a recent YouGov poll, 55% of Americans said they thought that capitalism makes poor people worse off. 65% believe that business people cheat to get ahead. And I mean, sure... Some businesses do bad things, and some business people are bad, because... Well... They're people. We see LEX LUTHOR. But they're are not supervillains. To the contrary, the vast majority of people who start and manage businesses tend to work pretty hard trying to come up with ways to make other people's lives better -- and when they fail, unless the government bails them out they lose money and go out of business, which is exactly what we want to happen. On some level we all must know this, because we conduct business as both buyers and sellers all the time and these experiences are overwhelmingly positive. Yet, our entertainment industry -- which is, ironically, one of the biggest commercial businesses in the world -- consistently presents capitalism and business as intrinsically bad. The question is... Why? CLIP: ANOTHER EVIL BUSINESSMAN MURDERING SOMEONE OR CHEWING SCENERY. SEAN Way back in 2009, I first read a fantastic paper by former University of Illinois Law Professor, Larry Ribstein, called "Wall Street and Vine: Hollywood's View of Business" and I've been thinking about it ever since. Ribstein's 85-page analysis is deep and covers a wide range of variations on the evil businessman trope -- using examples from movies like Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, and The Insider where greedy companies cut corners on safety and poison the environment; to movies like Mission Impossible II, The Fugitive, and Michael Clayton where drug companies cover up fake research and create diseases in order to sell the cure; to films like Wall Street, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Pretty Woman where the capitalists are just... Bad for no particular reason. The thing that becomes really apparent when you start thinking about this is stuff is that examples of evil businessmen in media are truly endless. We see some clips from TUCKER A MAN AN HIS DREAMS and FLASH OF GENIUS. Just about the only time they're portrayed positively any more is when they're smaller entrepreneurs being squashed by bigger companies with sociopathic executives. CLIP: PATRICK BATEMAN SWINGS HIS AXE IN "AMERICAN PSYCHO". SEAN Ribstein offers a few plausible theories on why this persists, but he eventually settles on the idea that perhaps it's not business per se that screenwriters object to, but more the fact that they are beholden to the capitalists' money if they want to actually make their films. He suggests that artists grow resentful of the "money men" getting a say in their art. This is fairly persuasive, in part because there are so many examples of this very story line popping up in movies like Barton Fink, where the artist is literally put upon by greedy non-creative bean-counters... But I think there's more to it than that. Especially now. For one thing, we're well into the second or third generation of creators using these tropes. Kids raised on movies like Other People's Money, Robocop, and Total Recall have grown into a new generation of adult writers, and the lessons imparted to them as children have shaped their worldviews. Show IMAGE of Washington Post article & graphic: Plus, over the last 25 years alone, there's been a massive ideological shift towards the left at universities around the country, and with it a palpable wave of Marcusean anti-capitalism. So it seems to me that there's probably a feedback loop in play, where people already influenced by these anti-business films & TV shows go to college and find themselves immersed in another environment that's become seriously one-dimensional in its perspective, and then they come out of these programs as writers and film-makers ready to continue the cycle. All of this is self-reinforcing, and thus we end up with decades of increasingly extreme anti-business movies. End on more extreme clips of "evil business guy" from SPEED RACER. FADE TO BLACK We take a beat before moving on. SEAN The fact is, there's not much any one person can do about this, but the reason I wanted to talk about it on Out of Frame is because I think it needs to be consciously understood. I want people to realize that this vilification is real, that it is pervasive, and that it can have a subtle-yet-powerful impact on the values and ideas our entire society accepts as true. And I want people to recognize that this is important. Division of labor, specialization, entrepreneurship, and the exchange of goods & services inside a system where people are free to make their own choices is critical to the survival and well-being of our species. Business is not something we should take for granted or vilify. It's something we should celebrate. FADE TO BLACK OUT OF FRAME END CARD SEAN Hey everybody. Thanks for watching. FEE has tons of articles talking about the importance of entrepreneurship and economic freedom, but I know some of you are going to have a lot to say about my praise of business and capitalism here. Feel free to leave a comment and start a conversation. I'll try to reply to some of the comments as they come in. In the meantime, check out for all the other content we're producing at the Foundation for Economic Education, and don't forget to like and subscribe to all our social networks on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Thanks for watching.

Out of Frame


About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

Hollywood's Favorite Trope: "It's Just Business"

June 7, 2018

Business is not our society's greatest source of evil. So why is it that whenever you see a businessman in a pinstriped suit appear on screen, he's almost always the bad guy?

The stories we read, watch, and hear affect our brains. If we want to empower people to innovate and improve how things are done, we need to paint businessmen and businesswomen in a better light.

Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Pavel Rusakov, Jaye Davidson & Sean W. Malone

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