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Cinema for the Enterprising

The best-ever movies about running a company.
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Entrepreneurship is inherently dramatic (Risk! Sacrifice! Heartbreak! Triumph!), yet its practitioners receive inexplicably short shrift in films. Still, movies about company building do exist, so with Oscar season upon us we asked business owners to nominate their favorites. After watching as many as possible, we chose a half dozen we felt best reflect disparate aspects of the entrepreneurial experience. The envelope, please…


Best Perils-Of-Hubris Story

Citizen Kane (1941)

What would company builders envy more: Charles Foster Kane's extravagant wealth? Or the media's fascination with his life and determination to plumb the depths of his psyche? Kane, famously modeled on William Randolph Hearst, is a tycoon by birth but an entrepreneur by spirit. He turns his back on the family's gold mines and oil wells, choosing instead to run a small, failing newspaper. At first he is a crusading idealist, living in the paper's offices and losing a million dollars a year. But he succumbs to overweening ambition, sacrificing his reputation, his principals--everything but his obscene fortune. In one wrenching scene, Kane rips up the Declaration of Principles on which he built his newspaper and flings the pieces into the fire. Citizen Kane reminds entrepreneurs tempted to build their own worlds that, in the end, they have to live in this one.

Best Dumb-Luck Story

Forrest Gump (1994)

When you've struggled for everything, it can be galling to watch others stumble into success. Yet who would begrudge sweet, simple Forrest and his double-amputee partner Lieutenant Dan their staggering profits, household-name brand, and Fortune magazine cover? True, Bubba Gump Shrimp takes off only because the company's boat survives a hurricane that otherwise decimates the Louisiana shrimping industry. But entrepreneurs know that, although luck may not be written into the business plan, it's always there between the lines. The implausibility of the partners' adventure is giddily inspirational and a further antidote to envy. Nor does success spoil the pure-souled Gump. Having earned "more money than Davy Crockett," he gives much of his fortune to charity and to his dead first partner's impoverished family before retiring from tycoondom to mow lawns.

Best Visionary Story

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)

This film is to company founders what The Right Stuff is to test pilots, a rousing tribute to fearless souls who raise the bar on what is possible. The story of a real-life inventor who tried to revolutionize the auto industry after World War II, Tucker is the apotheosis of entrepreneurship narratives. It's all there: the start-up in a barn, naysayers destined to see the light, devoted followers, the rush to prototype, technological breakthroughs, the wrath of giant corporations, and--finally--failure, followed by the glimmering of breakthroughs to come. The script is deftly engineered to uncork the tears of sympathetic viewers. "I went into business with you for one reason: to make money," says Tucker's original partner. "How was I to know that if I got too close I'd catch your dreams?" It's cliché, sure. But in context, it's also stirring.

Best Inspire-The-Troops Story

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Jerry Maguire is a cocky, successful sports agent until, in a rare moment of existential angst, he pens a mission statement arguing for reducing client volume to provide more personal service. Out on his ear, the reluctant entrepreneur starts a competing firm, supported by a single employee who "just wants to be inspired." Jerry's early attempts to inspire her, his sole remaining client, and even himself, sound mechanical and desperate. He shouts, bounces around, and gibbers in alpha male. Ultimately, of course, he learns the only way to inspire people is to play from the heart. Tom Cruise brilliantly captures the manic-depressive seesaw of an entrepreneur in start-up mode, swinging effortlessly from fear and flop sweat to irrational exultation in small victories. Best moment: Jerry driving down the road after a successful meeting belting, "I'm freeeeee…freeeee fallin'…"

Best Family Business Story

Big Night (1996)

In a New Jersey town during the 1950s, brothers Primo and Secondo Pilaggi can barely keep their Italian restaurant afloat. Secondo copes with the outside world: the unsympathetic banker, fussy customers, and a thriving competitor eager to buy them out. Meanwhile, Primo concocts culinary masterpieces and throws tantrums when philistines reject his work. "Give the people what they want," the competitor advises Secondo. "Then later you can give them what you want." That's not a compromise Primo will accept, and the brothers struggle to resolve familiar questions. Why are we here? What are we trying to do? They never arrive at an answer, leaving the film's conclusion more bitter than sweet. Anyone in business with a sibling, parent, or child will recognize the blend of gut-seizing frustration and unconditional love that governs such relationships.

Best David And Goliath Story

The Coca-Cola Kid (1985)

Too many movies fall back on the same formula: big business is bad, small business is good. The quirky Coca-Cola Kid is a less clear-cut affair. The folks at Coca-Cola (or at least at the Australian branch where the film is set) are reasonable, proud of their product, and mostly just doing their jobs. Then U.S. headquarters sends them a whiz-kid marketer who obsesses over infiltrating the one town where Coke sells zero product. That town is ruled by T. George McDowell, a parochial business mogul who launched a soft drink company back in 1924. McDowell is a pure, proud entrepreneur, but he's also a nut who shoots at interlopers and would rather burn his factory than see his name stripped from it. Yet that doesn't mean McDowell's not interested in a joint venture. The ensuing gamesmanship reveals that there are no sure outcomes when mice and elephants waltz.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2007

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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