With 2023 in the books, the CFO team continues its annual tradition of recollecting some of our favorite business-themed films and the movie scenes that make our cash flowing hearts beat a little bit faster. This year’s edition features old and new, and in each case, we think possessing a finance-oriented mind helps the viewer appreciate some of the movie’s moments.
We hope your 2023 has been a good one, and here’s to hopefully many more great cinematic finance moments in 2024.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Year: 1946
George Bailey, the owner of a struggling bank, faces financial ruin and contemplates suicide. His despair is interrupted by his guardian angel, Clarence, who shows George the positive impact he's had on his small-knit community of Bedford Falls.
This revelation leads to a community effort to save his bank. The story highlights the value of personal connections over wealth and how fractional reserve banking works, all while taking place sometime in pre-World War II upstate New York during Christmas time.
My first encounter with the film: It was in 2004, when I was in the fourth grade. We watched the movie as a class the week before the holiday break and had to write a report on it.
Why is this a finance movie? The main character, George Bailey, owns a failed bank. The movie follows his journey in putting it back together.
Best Finance-Related Scene: The bank run. Reminiscent of what many thought would happen earlier this year, this scene is both humorous and informative about the challenges of a bank run.
Movie stars I was excited to see: None recognized. All actors were known only by their character names before a second viewing.
Scene to Rewatch: The scene where George offers Mary Hatch the moon. Considered the funniest scene in the movie and a situation many can relate to.
Best Quote: "You look a little older without your clothes on." — George Bailey
Rating: 9 out of 10 stars
- Adam Zaki
The Social Network
Release Year: 2010
Plenty has been said about this movie not accurately depicting characters and events, so I won’t add to that here. This review is about what happens in the movie, not what happened in real life.
The story is fairly well known: Harvard students start a social website that becomes wildly popular, and Mark Zuckerberg, who invented and coded the site, becomes a campus celebrity. He appoints his friend Eduardo Saverin, a quant, to run the business side of the operation. “You’re the CFO,” Mark tells him.
Zuckerberg, meanwhile, meets Napster founder Sean Parker and falls under his sway, moving the company to Silicon Valley. Saverin doesn’t come along, insisting that as CFO it’s his responsibility to generate revenue, which he plans to get from advertisers in New York. Zuckerberg and Parker, who has become the company president, oppose him, saying they don’t know yet what the business is supposed to be.
As Facebook expands, opens up to the public, and zooms toward a million users, Zuckerberg and Parker conspire to dilute Saverin’s shares in the company by issuing millions of new shares, none of them to Saverin. Saverin ultimately sues.
Another lawsuit, alleging intellectual property theft, is brought against Zuckerberg by the Winklevoss twins, who had earlier asked Zuckerberg to help them develop their own social networking site for Harvard students.
The movie ends with Zuckerberg ordered to pay $65 million to the twins and reaching an undisclosed settlement with Saverin, while noting that Zuckerberg nonetheless became history’s youngest billionaire.
Thematically “The Social Network” is about growing a novel idea into a big business, mixed with healthy doses of greed, betrayal, and loneliness.
My first encounter with the film: I saw the movie in a theater shortly after its release in 2010. Watching it for this review was my second viewing.
Why is this a finance movie? It portrays a growing company, with elements addressing seed money, revenue generation, venture capital investment, issuance of shares, intellectual property issues, and a series of clueless mistakes by a green CFO.
Saverin is shown several times loudly insisting to Zuckerberg, “I’m the CFO!” and suggesting that it’s solely his responsibility to see that Facebook makes money. In Saverin’s zeal, he is strategically misaligned with his boss, the CEO. Zuckerberg hates the idea of selling advertising, but Saverin goes off on his own to pursue it anyway. The strategic disconnect between the two isn’t perhaps very surprising, considering Facebook founders’ age and inexperience.
Saverin also errs by not having an independent attorney review documents he signed in connection with his employment by the company, leaving him exposed to the share dilution. He laments that he thought Facebook’s attorneys were his attorneys as well.
Most importantly, he unilaterally freezes Facebook’s bank accounts in a bid to, as he tells Zuckerberg, “get your attention,” and in the process jeopardizes the company’s viability.
Best Finance-Related Scene: No question, it’s the scene where Saverin finds out that his ownership stake in the company has been reduced from 30% to .03%, while none of the other principal shareholders were diluted at all.
After hearing the bad news from an attorney, he rushes Zuckerberg’s desk and confronts him angrily, smashing his laptop. Says Zuckerberg, “You’re going to blame me because you were the business head of the company and you made a bad business deal with your own company?”
Movie star I was excited to see: I tend to forget that Justin Timberlake, who plays Parker, does a fine job in all of his acting roles. His performance here as a smooth-talking, charismatic, party-loving veteran of both Silicon Valley and Wall Street is certainly no exception.
Movie star I was surprised to see: At the time I first saw the movie, I probably didn’t know who either Rooney Mara or Dakota Johnson were. Upon rewatching, I was surprised to see them in their small but very-well-acted roles (Mara as Zuckerberg’s girlfriend at the start of the movie, Johnson as a friend of Parker).
Scene to Rewatch: My favorite scene in this movie doesn’t relate to finance. It shows the Winklevoss twins in a meeting they requested with Harvard president Larry Summers, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary.
They ask him to take action against Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their website idea, citing Harvard’s ethics code. A bemused Summers, played perfectly by Douglas Urbanski, replies, “Let me tell you something, Mr. Winklevoss and Mr. Winklevoss, since you're on the subject of right or wrong. This action, this meeting, the two of you being here, is wrong. It's not worthy of Harvard. It's not what Harvard saw in you. You don't get special treatment.”
Best quote: “That's where you're headed, a billion-dollar valuation. Unless you take bad advice, in which case you may as well have come up with a chain of very successful yogurt shops. When you go fishing you can catch a lot of fish, or you can catch a big fish. You ever walk into a guy's den and see a picture of him standing next to fourteen trout?” — Sean Parker
Rating: 10 out of 10. A masterpiece and one of the best movies of this century.
- David McCann
The Devil Wears Prada
Release Year: 2006
Director David Frankel’s comedy-drama film follows Andrea “Andy” Sachs (Anne Hathaway), an unassuming, overachieving journalism grad from the Midwest, after she lands a Manhattan “job a million girls would kill for” as the second assistant to the punishing elite fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep).
Miranda’s life is an elaborate exercise in the aesthetic purification of wearables and authoritative taste-making, and the unsuspecting Andy is left to awkwardly field her purposely confusing and punishing demands as she’s shamed for her “ugly sweater convention” clothes and accessories. Andy must also contend with Miranda’s devoted inner circle of employees — known in the film as “the Clackers” — and fashion partners who nervously applaud her every move in both fear and appreciation.
Despite Andy’s naïve fashion perspective, her round-the-clock hustle helps her to pull off many underdog triumphs with little help from the magazine’s other discerning Manhattan fashionista employees. Andy’s loss of innocence happens as she significantly steps up her personal style with the help of co-worker Nigel (Stanley Tucci), joins the champagne-laced party, and slowly begins to defend Miranda’s toxic work behaviors.
Soon Andy moves into first position at Miranda’s side. But after Andy’s attempts to warn Miranda about a business move that could finally bring her down, Miranda comments that the two share many similarities, which turns the spotlight on Andy’s own selfish behaviors and leaves her with a decision about just how far she’s willing to go.
Streep’s tremendous gifts convey the complexity and intensity of “the dragon lady who is career obsessed” with her signature succinct and dismissive gestures. Much of the fun comes from know that the film is based on Lauren Weisberger’s roman a clef by the same title and that Miranda’s character is based on Vogue’s notoriously frigid and controlling Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour, and her fashion fixated employees, labeled in real life as “the Conde Nasties.”
Streep’s interpretation of Wintour’s vengeance — something she’s likely learned a thing or two about from a lifetime of working in Hollywood — mixed with Hathaway’s creamy sincerity makes this film digestible comfort food satisfying enough for even culturati family members. Overall, a perfect holiday entertainment escape.
My first encounter with the film: I can’t remember my first viewing, but I have watched it many times since with my 10-year-old daughter, who is an aspiring “Clacker.”
Why is this a finance movie? In the rewatchable scene below, Miranda explains coldly and succinctly how business decisions get made, not just for the highest of high fashion, but how those decisions trickle all the way down to some clothing clearance bins. “You’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”
Best Finance-Related Scene: During Paris Fashion Week, Miranda’s ruthless business acumen comes to light as she maneuvers a mega partnership, to the detriment of her closest professional ally, in order to quell a lurking coup aimed at her position. The film also highlights the moneyed environment of high fashion and how couture runway successes influence the fashion pipeline all the way down to the the bargain basement.
Movie star I was excited to see: The movie is undeniably carried by inimitable Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway.
Movie star I was surprised to see: Emily Blunt adds an alluring dimension as Andy’s fashion obsessed co-worker whose life focuses on the parties and free clothes that she’ll snag as Miranda’s assistant at Paris Fashion Week – if she can fit into the size 2 styles. And Stanley Tucci adds a calming presence as Andy’s reluctant office confidant.
Scene to Rewatch: When Andy smirks at a comment about two turquoise belts that are “so different” only to be eloquently shamed by Priestly in front of the office audience.
Best quote: “Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.” — Miranda Priestly (fashion’s forever vision of itself)
Rating: 7 out of 10 stars
- Carolina Starin
Release Year: 2023
In 1984, a seismic shift in the business of sports was about to take place. Michael Jordan was about to happen, and only a handful of people, most notably Mike’s mother, Delores, saw it coming and knew a business opportunity had to be rapidly developed. The other person that could see into the future, besides MJ himself, was Nike marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who had to convince his boss Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), super agent David Falk (Chris Messina), and most importantly, Jordan’s mom (Viola Davis), that Nike was the best partner for Jordan’s future empire.
My first encounter with the film: My first experience watching this was on an airplane from DC to Vegas to cover SuiteWorld 2023. I never, ever expected this film to be as good as it turned out to be. It could have gone wrong a half-dozen ways, especially because “Air Jordan” himself never actually appears in the film, apart from vintage game footage. How do you make a movie about Jordan without Jordan actually in it? This is how.
But in a meta sense, I encountered this story in real time, at least the tail end of it. I am a child of the 80’s and a life-long NBA fan, and Air Jordan emerged at the perfect time in my young life. I don’t even think I’m exaggerating much when I say that of the top 20 childhood experiences I had growing up in central NY, probably half of them involved Michael Jordan in some way.
Why is this a finance movie? “Air” is a finance movie because there are certain historic points in business history that happen — or don’t happen — because the necessary capital becomes available at the right time, in the right way, to allow history to unfold. And the decision points rest in the hands of only a few people, and if they don’t recognize the moment as it unfolds, and don’t possess the foresight and resolve to act, the moment will pass, maybe forever. (Related, Sequoia Capital produces a great podcast series called “Crucible Moments” that captures these very kinds of kairos events)
Movie star I was excited to see:
Ben Affleck, whose hairstyles continue to be legendary. Maybe this isn’t as good as his “Argo” coif, but the Phil Knight perm is pretty great.
Also, it is worth mentioning that Viola Davis’ portrayal of Delores steals every scene she is in. She also was a personal request from Mr. Jordan to appear in the film.
Movie star I was surprised to see: Chris Tucker has a great comeback role as Howard White, a Nike executive who was willing to stake his career on Vaccaro’s gamble, and later became VP of Nike’s Jordan Brand. Jordan reportedly made a personal request that White be included in the film, and Tucker, who had a great run of comedies in his career, played White with a cool sense of purpose, confidence, and compassion.
Best Finance-Related Scene:
A third of the way throught the film, Vaccaro has seen the future, and it is in the hands of a skinny kid from North Carolina. Nike in 1984 is not a basketball company, and it was founded by a man who wanted to create a better running shoe. The budget to sponsor an NBA player is extremely limited, and a downright comical amount in 2023’s sports marketing dollars. But Vaccaro wants to take that tiny budget he’s afforded, and instead of spreading it across three players, go all in on one. And he’s willing to bet his own career on it. That’s step one.
Step two is when Knight finally understands, not only what it will cost to pay Jordan, but what would cost the company and eventually disrupt the entire financial structure of the sports apparel industry — to give Jordan a piece of the revenue associated with every piece of clothing with his name on it. And it is Delores who delivers the ultimatum.
Scene to Rewatch: “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it.”
Best quote: “Money can buy you almost anything. It can’t buy you immortality. That, you have to earn.” — Sonny Vaccaro
Rating: 8 out of 10
- Andy Burt