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Making Sense of Business and Community in Hollywood Films, 1928–2016

  • Per H. Hansen and Anne Magnussen


We analyze how Hollywood films from 1928 to 2016 represented business within a broad historical and business context. We argue that the films actively contributed to audiences’ sensemaking processes and to how different groups perceived the role of business in society. We advance the idea that films provided cultural blueprints to be used by viewers for their own understanding, identification, and practices in relation to business in its historical context, particularly during periods of uncertainty, crisis, and instability when many films addressed deeper societal concerns about the role of business.

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1 Alessandra Stanley, “A Booming Market for Art That Imitates Life after the Financial Crisis,” New York Times, 7 Feb. 2016.

2 Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report: Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States (Washington, D.C., 2011).

3 Ibid., xvii.

4 Rosenstone, Robert A., History on Film/Film on History, 2nd ed. (Harlow, U.K., 2012), 55. See also Munslow, Alan, “Film and History: Robert A. Rosenstone and History on Film/Film on History,” Rethinking History 11, no. 4 (2007): 565–75.

5 The concept of sensemaking is mostly attributable to Weick, Karl E., Sensemaking in Organizations (Thousand Oaks, Calif., 1995). For recent discussions of sensemaking, see Maitlis, Sally and Christianson, Marlys, “Sensemaking in Organizations: Taking Stock and Moving Forward,” Academy of Management Annals 8, no. 1 (2014): 57125; and Holt, Robin and Cornelissen, Joep, “Sensemaking Revisited,” Management Learning 45, no. 5 (2014): 525–39. We use the sensemaking approach at the societal level and focus on how narratives create order and direction in, and ascribe meanings and causality to, events in situations of uncertainty. See Hansen, Per H., “Making Sense of Financial Crisis and Scandal: A Danish Bank Failure in the First Era of Finance Capitalism,” Enterprise & Society 13, no. 3 (2012): 672706; and Seeger, Matthew W. and Sellnow, Timothy L., Narratives of Crisis: Telling Stories of Ruin and Renewal (Stanford, 2016).

6 As in many other studies, the influence of business films on the audience's worldview and behavior is an implicit premise. See Corner, John, “Influence: The Contested Core of Media Research,” in Mass Media and Society, 3rd ed., ed. Curran, James and Gurevitch, Michael (London, 2000), 376. See also Bell, Emma, Reading Management and Organization in Film (New York, 2008), 203. For an analysis of different groups of viewers’ perceptions of films, see Shively, JoEllen, “Cowboys and Indians: Perceptions of Western Films among American Indians and Anglos,” American Sociological Review 57, no. 6 (1992): 725–34.

7 Steven Perlberg, “We Saw ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ with a Bunch of Wall Street Dudes and It Was Disturbing,” Business Insider, 19 Dec. 2013,

8 Francesco Guerrera, “The ‘Wall Street’ Effect,” Financial Times Weekend, 25–26 Sept. 2010. See also Geraldine Fabrikant, “Wall Street Reviews ‘Wall Street,’” New York Times, 10 Dec. 1987; Josh Sims, “Brace Yourself for Suspenders,” Financial Times, 14 Dec. 2007; and Colin Cameron, “Power, Sex and Suits,” Financial Times, 15 Dec. 2007.

9 McCracken, Grant, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities (Bloomington, Ind., 1988), 74.

10 For a recent discussion of performativity, see Muniesa, Fabian, The Provoked Economy: Economic Reality and the Performative Turn (London, 2014). In relation to business history, see Hansen, Per H., “Business History: A Cultural and Narrative Approach,” Business History Review 86, no. 4 (2012): 693717; and Hansen, Per H., “From Finance Capitalism to Financialization: A Cultural and Narrative Perspective on 150 Years of Financial History,” Enterprise & Society 15, no. 4 (2014): 605–42. Regarding epistemic communities, see Haas, Peter M., “Introduction: Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination,” International Organization 46, no. 1 (1992): 135.

11 The idea that films and popular culture generally participate in shaping perceptions, identities, and practices is not particularly related to business and film, nor is it new. On business films, see, for example, Bell, Reading Management, 1, 23, 32–37; Czarniawska, Barbara and Rhodes, Carl, “Strong Plots: Popular Culture in Management Practice and Theory,” in Management Education and the Humanities, ed. Gagliardi, Pasquale and Czarniawska, Barbara (Cheltenham, U.K., 2006), 199; Levinson, Julie, The American Success Myth on Film (New York, 2012), 18; Spector, Bert, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in the Executive Suite: American Corporate Movies in the 1950s,” Journal of Management History 14, no. 1 (2008): 89; Shugan, Steven M., “Antibusiness Movies and Folk Marketing,” Marketing Science 25, no. 6 (2006): 681; Bugos, Glenn E., “Organizing Stories of Organizational Life: Four Films on American Business,” Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies 2, no. 1 (1996): 111–12, 126; Ribstein, Larry E., “Wall Street and Vine: Hollywood's View of Business,” Managerial and Decision Economics 33, no. 4 (2012): 212; and Parker, Martin, Against Management: Organization in the Age of Managerialism (Oxford, 2002), 157. Within historical research, David Carr has argued in favor of continuities between narrative, everyday experience, and action; see Carr, Time, Narrative, and History (Bloomington, Ind., 1986), 16. See also Rosenstone, History on Film, 4; Rosenstone, Robert M., Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 22; and Trouillot, Jean-Rolph, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston, 1995), 21. For a business historian's view on film and history, see Miskell, Peter, “Historians and Film,” in Making History: An Introduction to the History and Practices of a Discipline, ed. Lambert, Peter and Schofield, Phillipp (London, 2004). For a discussion of narratives and business history, see Hansen, “Business History.”

12 Spector, Bert, “A Crack the Cold War Consensus: Billy Wilder's The Apartment,” Management & Organizational History 4, no. 2 (2009): 199; Bugos, “Organizing Stories,” 111–12; May, Larry, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago, 2000): 263–65.

13 On representations of management and organization in Hollywood films over time, see Bell, Reading Management. On how Hollywood movies represent business and the “American dream,” see Levinson, American Success Myth; and Boozer, Jack, Career Movies: American Business and the Success Mystique (Austin, Tex., 2002). However, none of these three analyses addresses the more general category of business in society and how films make sense of business and uncertainty. Other scholars discuss Hollywood as a business in itself; see, for instance, Gomery, Douglas, “Film and Business History: The Development of an American Mass Entertainment Industry,” Journal of Contemporary History 19, no. 1 (1984): 89103; Bakker, Gerben, “Stars and Stories: How Films Became Branded Products,” in An Economic History of Film, ed. Sedgwick, John and Pokorny, Michael (Abingdon, U.K., 2005); Bakker, Gerben, “How Motion Pictures Industrialized Entertainment,” Journal of Economic History 72, no. 4 (2012): 1036–63; and Parker, Against Management, 135. On business films as teaching tools in business studies, see Bell, Reading Management; Werner, Andrea, “‘Margin Call’: Using Film to Explore Behavioural Aspects of the Financial Crisis,” Journal of Business Ethics 122, no. 4 (2014): 643–54; Aupperle, Kenneth E. and Dunphy, Steven M., “Managerial Lessons for a New Millenium: Contributions from Chester Barnard and Frank Capra,” Management Decision 39, no. 2 (2001): 156–64; and Williams, Oliver F., ed., The Moral Imagination: How Literature and Films Can Stimulate Ethical Reflection in the Business World (Notre Dame, Ind., 1997).

Among the few studies that present a general view of business representations in Hollywood film, some argue that Hollywood films are anticapitalist, and others, that they are procapitalist. For the former, see Ribstein, “Wall Street and Vine”; Ribstein, Larry E., ed., “Imagining Wall Street,” special issue, Virginia Law and Business Review 1, no. 2 (2006); Edward W. Younkins, “Business through Literature and Film,” Le Québécois Libre, no. 308 (15 Feb. 2013),; and Shugan, “Antibusiness Movies.” For the latter, see Levinson, American Success Myth, 65–108; Oliete-Aldea, Elena, “Fear and Nostalgia in Times of Crisis: The Paradoxes of Globalization in Oliver Stone's Money Never Sleeps,” Culture Unbound 4, no. 2 (2010): 347–66; Baum, Bruce, “Hollywood's Crisis of Capitalism 2011: Inside Job, The Company Men, and the Myth of Good Capitalism,” New Political Science 33, no. 4 (2011): 603–12; and Denzin, Norman K., “Reading ‘Wall Street’: Postmodern Contradictions in the American Social Structure,” in Theories of Modernity and Postmodernity, ed. Turner, Brian S. (London, 1990), 3144.

14 See Hansen, “From Finance Capitalism”; and Parker, Against Management, 134–58.

15 Our selection of films resembles the “snowball sampling” used in Bell, Reading Management, 8–9. It is based on relevant literature, the Internet Movie Database (, and the American Film Institute's catalog of feature films ( For a definition of Hollywood films, see Lewis, John, American Film: A History (New York, 2008), 92; and Belton, John, American Cinema/American Culture (New York, 2013), 24.

16 On narratives and the elements of events, actors, time, and location, see Bal, Mieke, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narratives (Toronto, 2009).

17 For more detailed analyses of some of the individual films, see Levinson, American Success Myth; Boozer, Career Movies; and Bell, Reading Management.

18 On the Hollywood system and organizing of filmmaking, see Bell, Reading Management, chap. 2; and May, The Big Tomorrow. Cinematography, music, choice of lead actors, and other issues also affected how the films represented business; see Bell, Reading Management, 13–64; and Levinson, American Success Myth, 1–20. However, for the purposes of this article, we argue that analysis of the films’ narratives is an appropriate analytical strategy.

19 Berle, Adolf and Means, Gardiner, The Modern Corporation and Private Property (New York, 1932); Coase, Ronald, “The Nature of the Firm,” Economica 4, no. 16 (1937): 386405. For a discussion of Berle and Means's point about the corporation as a social institution, see Davis, Gerald F., “The Twilight of the Berle and Means Corporation,” Seattle University Law Review 34, no. 4 (2011): 1121–38.

20 U.S. Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, The Pecora Report: The 1934 Report on the Practices of Stock Exchanges from the “Pecora Commission” (Washington, D.C., 1934); Perino, Michael, The Hellhound of Wall Street: How Ferdinand Pecora's Investigation of the Great Crash Forever Changed American Finance (New York, 2010).

21 See also May, The Big Tomorrow, 4. The Hucksters (1947) corresponds to some extent with the critical approach to big business, as the protagonist decides to leave the world of marketing.

22 Belton, American Cinema, 137.

23 See also Levinson, American Success Myth, 70–75; and Bell, Reading Management, 19.

24 See also Bugos, “Organizing Stories,” 112–15; and Levinson, American Success Myth, 42–43.

25 About the latter, see Parker, Against Management, 139–40.

26 Roper, Elmo, ”The Public Looks at Business,” Harvard Business Review 27, no. 2 (1949): 169, 170, 171.

27 David, Donald K., “Business Responsibilities in an Uncertain World,” Harvard Business Review 27, no. 3 (1949): 18.

28 Suspicion of big business, robber barons, Wall Street versus Main Street, and financial speculation all go back to the nineteenth century; see John, Richard, “Robber Barons Redux: Antimonopoly Reconsidered,” Enterprise & Society 13, no. 1 (2012): 138.

29 Gregor Aisch and Alicia Parlapiano, “What Do You Think Is the Most Important Problem Facing This Country Today?” New York Times, 27 Feb. 2017.

30 Roper, “Public Looks at Business,” 169.

31 For a discussion of the generation of 1950s executives and their values, see Cheffins, Brian R., “Corporate Governance since the Managerial Capitalism Era,” Business History Review 89, no. 4 (2015): 717–44.

32 Batia Wiesenfeld and Gino Cattani, “Business through Hollywood's Lens,” Harvard Business Review, Oct. 2010, 146–47.

33 See Spector, “American Corporate Movies”; Spector, “Crack the Cold War Consensus”; and Noakes, John A., “Official Frames in Social Movement Theory: The FBI, HUAC, and the Communist Threat in Hollywood,” Sociological Quarterly 41, no. 4 (2000): 662–63.

34 Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 15. See also Chandler, Alfred D. Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge, Mass., 1962) and The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass., 1977).

35 Drucker, Peter, The Concept of the Corporation (New York, 1946); Drucker, Peter, The Practice of Management (New York, 1954). The quote is from Drucker, “Trusting the Teacher in the Grey-Flannel Suit,” Economist, 17 Nov. 2005.

36 Examples include A Woman's World (1954), Sabrina (1954), Executive Suite (1954), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), and Patterns (1956).

37 Mills, C. Wright, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York, 1951), ix. See also Whyte, William H. Jr., The Organization Man (New York, 1956); Spector, “American Corporate Movies,” 94–95; Levinson, American Success Myth, 75–92; and Bell, Reading Management, 95–96.

38 Cash McCall (1960) refers to a similar conflict.

39 Patterns (1956) and The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) are other examples of how good management that is responsible to society is possible, especially with the new generation at the helm. See also Spector, “American Corporate Movies,” 96–99. For an alternative (more pessimistic) interpretation, see Levinson, American Success Myth, 87.

40 The relationship between family and work, as well as the issue of women in the marriage, is also addressed in A Woman's World (1954).

41 Other business films of the 1950s addressed issues such as the introduction of new technology, in Desk Set (1957); labor unions versus management, in The Pajama Game (1957); and career versus family, in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957).

42 See May, The Big Tomorrow, chap. 6.

43 Aisch and Parlapiano, “Most Important Problem.”

44 Martin Parker argues that The Apartment did not question “the overall legitimacy of the organization.” Parker, Against Management, 140–41. However, Bert Spector convincingly sees The Apartment as the beginning of a “significant ground shift” that took place in the 1960s. Spector, “American Corporate Movies,” 100.

45 Spector, “Crack the Cold War Consensus.”

46 For discussion of this process, see Cheffins, “Corporate Governance”; and Baker, George P. and Smith, George David, The New Financial Capitalists: Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and the Creation of Corporate Value (New York, 1998).

47 Aisch and Parlapiano, “Most Important Problem.”

48 Belton, American Cinema, 373. See also Lewis, American Film, 291.

49 Galbraith, John Kenneth, The New Industrial State (Boston, 1967).

50 Jensen, Michael and Meckling, William H., “Theory of the Firm: Managerial Behavior, Agency Costs and Ownership Structure,” Journal of Financial Economics 3, no. 4 (1976): 305–60; Jensen, Michael, “Takeovers: Folklore and Science,” Harvard Business Review, Nov.–Dec. 1984, 109–21.

51 See, for instance, with telling titles, “The Organization Man, DEAD AT 76,” Journal of Business Strategy 18, no. 6 (1997): 19–23; and Bennett, Amanda, The Death of the Organization Man (New York, 1990).

52 See Baker and Smith, New Financial Capitalists; Hansen, “From Finance Capitalism”; and Cheffins, “Corporate Governance.”

53 Jensen and Meckling, “Theory of the Firm,” 310.

54 Zingales, Luigi, “In Search of New Foundations,” Journal of Finance 55, no. 4 (2000): 1624.

55 Ibid., 1642–43.

56 Kwak, James, “Cultural Capture and the Financial Crisis,” in Preventing Regulatory Capture: Special Interest Influence and How to Limit It, ed. Carpenter, Daniel and Moss, David A. (Cambridge, Mass., 2013).

57 Quoted in Davis, Gerald F., “Politics and Financial Markets,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Finance, ed. Cetina, Karin Knorr and Preda, Alex (Oxford, 2012), 44.

58 Belton, American Cinema, 393–94. See also Parker, Against Management, 152–53; and Williamson, Judith, “‘Up Where You Belong’: Hollywood Images of Big Business in the 1980s,” in Enterprise and Heritage: Crosscurrents of National Culture, ed. Corner, John and Harvey, Sylvia (London, 1991).

59 See Trading Places (1983), Wall Street (1987), Working Girl (1988), Barbarians at the Gates (1993), Civil Action (1998), The Insider (1999), Rogue Trader (1999), Boiler Room (2000), Erin Brockovich (2000), Two Weeks Notice (2002), and In Good Company (2004).

60 Bugos, “Organizing Stories,” 123. On the rise of finance and LBOs in the context of Wall Street, see Kelley, Beverly Merrill, Reelpolitik Ideologies in American Political Film (Lanham, Md., 2012), 4374.

61 Francesco Guerrera, “How ‘Wall Street’ Changed Wall Street,” Financial Times, 24 Sept. 2010; and Kelley, Reelpolitik Ideologies, 65–70. For a critical academic analysis of Wall Street, see Denzin, “Reading ‘Wall Street.’”

62 The same point is made in Wall Street by Gekko (“I create nothing. I own”) and in Other People's Money (1991) by Garfield (“I don't make anything? I am making you money”).

63 Examples include Baby Boom (1987), Tucker: A Man and His Dream (1988), Jerry Maguire (1996), Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999), The Aviator (2004), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), There Will Be Blood (2007), and Cadillac Records (2008).

64 McCraw, Thomas K., Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction (Cambridge, Mass., 2007)

65 Films such as The Secret of My Success (1987) and Thank You for Smoking (2005) also signal meaninglessness and cynicism in different ways.

66 See, for instance, Baby Boom (1987), Pretty Woman (1990), You've Got Mail (1998), Two Weeks Notice (2002), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), and A Good Year (2006).

67 On the “new firm,” see Zingales, “New Foundations.”

68 Donaldson, Thomas and Preston, Lee E., “The Stakeholder Theory of the Corporation: Concepts, Evidence, and Implications,” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 1 (1995): 6591; Freeman, R. Edward, Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach (Boston, 1984).

69 Examples include Baby Boom (1987), Working Girl (1988), Erin Brockovich (2000), and The Devil Wears Prada (2006). With regards to racial minorities, Eddie Murphy in Trading Places (1983), and Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) seem to be two exceptions to the rule.

70 On representations of women in films, see Bell, Reading Management, 139–59.

71 Zingales, “New Foundations.”

72 The based-on-real-events film phenomenon accelerated with the financial crisis, but the trend was also clear in business films outside of finance, for instance, The Informant! (2009), The Social Network (2010), Casino Jack (2010), Jobs (2013), Joy (2015), Steve Jobs (2015), and The Founder (2016).

73 For example, Up in the Air (2009), The Joneses (2009), The Informant! (2009), Arbitrage (2012), and The Wolf of Wall Street.

74 The obvious reference is Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Mass., 2014).

75 Seen also in Casino Jack (2010), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), and Margin Call (2011).

76 Examples include The Company Men (2010), Jobs (2013), Joy (2015), Steve Jobs (2015), and The Intern (2015).

77 See Stout, Lynn, The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public (San Francisco, 2012); and Gautam Mukunda, “The Price of Wall Street's Power,” Harvard Business Review, June 2014, 70–78.

78 Aisch and Parlapiano, “Most Important Problem.”


Making Sense of Business and Community in Hollywood Films, 1928–2016

  • Per H. Hansen and Anne Magnussen


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