Hooray for Hollywood movies about business

Published in UT San Diego, July 22, 2013

When I was younger, I worked as a writer in Hollywood. The business of Hollywood is not a business. It makes the used-car industry look like the nuns of Santa Lucia. And picking winners — impossible. The most famous quote about Hollywood comes from William Goldman (Oscar winner for the script of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) who once said, “Nobody knows nothing.”

But one thing Hollywood does know is how to make movies about business. And let’s take a look at a few older movies and see what their stories can teach us and how they resonate with us today.

“Citizen Kane,” directed by Orson Welles, is based loosely on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In the movie, Welles has a famous line, “You’re right. I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place — in 60 years.”

So this is the school where Tumblr, Groupon, Facebook, Pinterest, Zynga, etc. got their MBAs. This is the beginning of the “profits, we don’t need no stinking profits” mantra that has infected some contemporary technology startups. The difference of course is that Hearst had very deep personal pockets, no board of directors and did not have to go public to get liquid.

“Wall Street,” starring Michael Douglas as an amalgam of Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky and a host of other “masters of the universe,” has the famous line, “Greed is good.”

Not anymore. The rise of nonprofits and the desire by the new technorati “to both do well and do good” belie that hoary line. Google’s corporate motto was “don’t be evil.” One can debate whether that is the case today or not, but at a minimum, it was originally well intentioned.

“The Godfather,” starring Marlon Brando, has the signature line, “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” This remains a brilliant tactical model for negotiation — sans guns. Understanding the chess board and placing your opponent in a position where there is only one outcome is difficult but compelling. It requires standing in the other person’s shoes (not cement) and then playing the game until you are one move from checkmate — and then of course, an offer he cannot refuse.

The other great line from Godfather, among many, is “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” I offer no deep thoughts on that one except that I love the cannoli at Bussalachi’s restaurant in Hillcrest.

“Jerry McGuire,” starring Tom Cruise, is a story of loyalty and perseverance in a world where “the key to this business is personal relationships.”

I think this is critical in doing deals — and it argues for what I call doing “road work.” This means get on a plane and go see the client, the customer, the deal guy — you have to be in his face, breaking bread. The Internet lets you do WebEx and everything else short of pressing the flesh, but the truth is, you need to sit across from someone. And of course, “Show me the money.”

In startup terms, that means do not waste time with pretenders or prevaricators or promoters. Find the guy who actually writes the checks.

“Glengarry Glenn Ross” tells you everything you will ever need to know about selling. ABC — Always Be Closing. “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” What more is there to say? No pitch decks, no power points, no excuses. It is the win/lose finality brought down to simple basics for your company.

I love movies about business. They inform us in ways that TechCrunch (a technology blog) never will. And when we see courage, passion, perseverance and triumph, we applaud even if along the way a couple people have to take the fall.

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