Movies for Entrepreneurs

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time on a terrific blog, 2blowhards, which has taught me that the only way for this blog to work is for me to practice what I preach in my book. In particular, I need to differentiate what I offer by imbuing it with as much of myself as possible. Certainly with an eye/ear towards my audience—but always informed by what I really care about. What follows is a lengthy post on a favorite topic of mine: movies that should inspire entrepreneurs.

My top six choices are: Groundhog Day, The Music Man, Ghostbusters, Run Lola Run, Jerry Maguire, and Mary Poppins. Of course, most commercial films that are ostensibly about business generally have very little to say about business. In Hollywood, CEOs are villains who have lied and murdered for their position, and humble but wise mail clerks (ideally played by Michael J. Fox) have far more insight than everyone above them and win the top job (and the girl to boot) through homespun smarts. And of course greed is good, the mafia is a business worthy of an HBS case study, and all accountants look like Rick Moranis or Charles Martin Smith.

My entrepreneur’s filmfest kicks off with Groundhog Day, a great movie that has spawned a cult of followers who see a deep parable in the film’s message. Here’s a reverent essay on the topic and here’s a wonderful piece discussing a showing of the movie at the San Francisco Zen Center (with excellent further links.) Finally, a list of links about the film. So while I can’t claim to be the only person seeing deeper resonance about the film, here’s my take on its message about entrerpreneurship (actually, my wife and I first noticed it’s relevance in the context of parenting, but that’s a digression I won’t pursue.)

Of all the tools in an entrepreneur’s kit, there is nothing more important than attitude. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray stars as Phil Connors, a cynical weatherman who finds himself sentenced to what he considers a fate worse than death. Sent to Punxsatawne, Pennsylvania to cover its hokey Groundhog Day celebration, Phil is shocked when he wakes up only to relive the same day over and over and over. He reacts with horror. Sarcastic and egotistical, he has nothing but contempt and impatience for this town, and his looped existence is a fate worse than death. In fact, he can’t even escape by dying. He tries, only to wake the next morning to the same strains of Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe on the AM radio.

The movie playfully explores the consequences of Phil’s different approaches to his sentence. Initially he tries every ploy imaginable to flee, and fails. His subsequent depression leads to a series of suicide attempts (which succeed—until the next morning.) The genius of the film lies in its exploration of how the imperturbable sameness of the world changes only when one individual begins to grow. As Phil Connors begins to discern the implications of his odd god-like existence, he first behaves in completely self-serving ways. He learns what makes individuals tick and uses this for his petty needs. He tries every trick in the book to win the affection of his producer Rita, played by Andie McDowell. Yet even the most elaborate of mechanisms ultimately fail to win her love, or escape town.

So what finally changes in Punxsatawne? Phil Connors. Like a true entrepreneur, Phil only really begins to live his life when he sees his situation as an opportunity rather than a problem. On one day he tells Rita that eternal life in Punxsatawne is a curse; she replies that it’s just the opposite. Something clicks for Phil, whose attitude begins to truly change.

Phil learns to trust, to listen, and to share. He begins to find ways to save people from choking and to keep young girls from despair; he learns to master the piano and finds a way to deliver a home baby. He begins to see his time there as open to possibility. Only when he becomes generous does he eventually get the girl. Only when he shifts from selfish to selfless does he find happiness. Finally, as a result of his internal change, at the end of the film he is freed from the no exit of life in Punxsatawnee.

There’s a clear link here to the entrepreneurial imperative. The world always presents the same scenario: the important aspect concerns how one deals with it. While entrepreneurs recognize and capitalize on change, the most important and powerful change always takes place within. Therein lies the greatest payoff.

Next on my list would certainly be The Music Man.

Harold Hill is one of the great creations of America theater. And, in my very personal list, his character is animated by Robert Preston in one of the three greatest performances in musicals (along with Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd and Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins/The Sound of Music.) Hill represents the quintessential entrepreneur—a salesman, a dreamer, a man driven by passion and fueled by more than a touch of the charlatan. Yet who’s to say that the wares he sells, which are essentially hope and self-worth and accomplishment, are no less tangible than source code?

In this dark tale about the heart of America, Hill comes into town as a hustler who preys on the naivete and vanity of small town earnestness. Yet in the course of the movie he shows that his "think" system (hmm…didn’t some big company use that word as its motto?) can in fact convert hope into something tangible—in this case, a boy’s band. Whenever I think of charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs I can’t help but be reminded just a bit of Harold Hill.

The entire story cuts to the heart of entrepreneurship. As Scott Miller points out in his excellent book Deconstructing Harold Hill, the story is set at a time of great economic change. In 1912 waves of travelling salesmen set out to capitalize on the scattered nature of retailing. Prior to A&P and other chain stores, folks like Hill could ride the newly formed railroad lines to sell their wares directly, gaining a reputation as modern men steeped in currency and excitement. While they were met with suspicion, Miller also points out that "the image of the travelling salesman also embodied the American ideal of the rugged individualist, independently working to build his fortune and realize his own personal American Dream."

Hill works the system, both legitimately and not, by following the entrepreneurial mandate of exploiting change. Here’s how Hill gets to work when he hits the town: "All I need is an opening. You remember the pitch," he tells his former colleague Marcellus Watson: "What’s new around here?"

Such an opening could have very well been taken from Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship, in which he identifies change as the source of all new and important entrepreneurial activity. "Systematic innovation therefore consists in the purposeful and organized search for changes, and in the systematic analysis of the opportunities such changes might offer for economic or social innovation."

Segue back to Marcellus Watson, who tells Hill that "River City isn’t in any trouble." To which Hill, in a line that would make any consultant proud, replies, "Then I’ll create some." He seeds the cloud for his wares with this goal: "I must create a terrible need for a boys band." And the rest, as we all know, is not history. It is trouble—with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for entrepreneur.

Movie three revisits the Bill Murray (who’d a thunk it?) thread. Yup, I’m talking Ghostbusters, which has to be programmed on the double bill with Groundhog Day. (And cheers to you Ivan Reitman for your role in both!) Sure, the basic premise of this movie deals with three guys who form a business to capture spirits from the other world. But aside from the bit about spirits from the other world, there’s quite a bit of entrepreneurial resonance in their startup saga.

Just consider this exchange from the script. Stantz, played by Dan Ackroyd, panics when the three paranormal scientists are fired from the University. Severed from the cozy confines of academe, he’s going to have to take a new route.

I liked the University. They gave us money,
they gave us the facilities and we didn't
have to produce anything! I've worked in
the private sector. They expect results.
You've never been out of college. You don't
know what it's like out there.

(with visionary zeal)
Let me tell you, Ray, everything in life
happens for a reason. Call it fate, call
it luck, Karma, whatever. I think we were
destined to get kicked out of there.

For what purpose?

(with real conviction)
To go into business for ourselves.

Their immediate next step: to raise the capital for their venture. And how do they do it? By taking a third mortgage on Stantz’s home, the one his parents left him. And while Spengler, the money guy, reminds Ray that the interest payments alone for the first five years come to over $75,000, it takes Venkman to bring them back to their mission statement:

Will you guys relax? We are on the
threshold of establishing the indispensable
defense science of the next decade -
Professional Paranormal Investigations and
Eliminations. The franchise rights alone
will make us wealthy beyond your wildest

But most people are afraid to even report
these things.

Maybe. But no one ever advertised before.

The three form a perfect entrepreneurial team: Murray as Venkman is the visionary, the enthusiast (even if Sigourney Weaver’s character says he acts like a used car salesman,) Ackroyd as Stantz is the technical genius, and Ivan Reitman (no techno-slob himself) plays the numbers guy.

They go through the standard entrepreneurial story: raise startup capital, rent cheap office space in a bad part of town, hire one person to answer the phones, and pour their money into capital equipment and marketing. And just when they are on the verge of going broke, they get the call that launches the business. Of course in this case, the call is to rid a hotel of a really nasty ghoul.

From there the business takes off. And here’s what I love about what they do when the job is done: they bill their first client! As they leave with their slimy prey, Venkman has the presence of mind to write a bill for $4,000—and an extra $1,000 for storage (smart, very smart.) And when the hotel manager objects to the fee, Venkman calmly replies, "Fine. We’ll let it out again." Needless to say, the manager agrees. And their career is launched, with a bullet. Before long they’re on the cover of all the newsmagazines, on Larry King, and, if they’d been around long enough, would have certainly made the Inc. 500 list.

Let me quickly go through the last three.

Run Lola Run certainly ranks among the great entrepreneurial parables of our time. And it’s not simply because the film is essentially about how Lola, the girlfriend of the bumbling German hood Manni, must scramble to collect 100,000 marks in twenty minutes to prevent a bigger crook from killing him. (Manni has left the money behind on the subway.) Yes, the desperate dash by Lola to find the funds through whatever means necessary (breaking into the bank where her father works to beg for the cash, running into the casino to make several improbable bets, and trying to keep Manni from holding up a supermarket) feels emotionally resonant to any entrepreneur without sufficient funds on Friday to pay the employees.

But there’s another lovely message from this German film, which has to do with the structure: first-time director Tom Tykwer tells this story three times, showing how the same set of initial circumstances can turn out radically different by the simplest slight change of events (describe.) Such shifts are unnoticeable to most of us, yet can play the most profound of parts in shaping the outcomes of our efforts. To me the message is this: we strive and we scramble, and we do everything possible to keep events in our control, to create our own luck. But always, in every venture we must all keep in mind that some elements beyond our control are driving the bus with us.

Jerry Maguire makes the list despite my ambivalence about the integrity of the film’s message. Many folks in the past decade identified with Jerry’s passion for creating a better business. "We are losing our battle with all that is personal and real about our business," writes Jerry in his self-defeating memo—no make that mission statement—which is printed in the script of the movie. And the movie (which I include because, I confess, I enjoy it so much,) then shows his passionate, flailing, earnest effort to make this happen. An earnestness and zest worthy of the biggest of Tom Cruise like emotions.

Jerry Maguire loses all but one client, nurtures this relationship, marries his employee, and finally sees his vision come true as Rod Tidwell emerges as a star who merits the big bucks they all need. Yet here’s where the film runs into a doom loop: as Maguire watches Tidwell give props to him on ESPN, the likes of Katarina Witt and Troy Aikman come up to him approvingly. And I can’t help but wonder if his act of integrity has put him in the position to simply recreate what he just fled. It’s a facet of entrepreneurial integrity that falls short in this fictional world. My quirky feeling is that the minute Cameron Crowe cast Tom Cruise he suddenly gained the ability to make this film. But as a result of casting Cruise he paid the penalty of having Tom Cruise, with his emoting and puffing, to carry the heart of the movie. Ploddingly as always. You can’t make a movie about integrity that features an actor who has none.

It’s the same kind of paradox in a film like You’ve Got Mail. The intended message is that little shopowners have so much more heart and soul than the corporate cads who chain them into oblivion. And yet this overdone sentimental movie required the resources of a major film studio and the salaries of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan to make such a "personal" statement. Would it have had more credibility with me were it an indie film? Probably. So I keep Jerry Maguire on the list, if only for the fact that it makes the act of writing a mission statement meaningful.

Okay, final pick: Mary Poppins. Just cause I love to watch the transformation of Mr. Banks in the course of the film. He starts the movie as an arrogant patriarch, the lord and master of his house. Yet his detached and imperious rule of the household is completely disrupted by The Nanny, the perfect Nanny of course. Yet Mary Poppins really serves as a catalyst who enacts change and then leaves (the perfect turnaround artist as well!). She shows the Banks parents the importance of leaving the workplace behind to spend time with family—but also to inform the work place with human values. The end of the movie shows the bank directors flying kites with Banks, who has been reinstated, with a sense of humor no less. Perhaps this is a fantasy, but one I always enjoy.

And one last inspiring set of words, a great entrepreneur’s quote from Heat. Spoken by Tom Sizemore’s character when explaining why he’ll take another job (think: a new venture.) "To me the action’s half the juice. I’m in."

Thanks for reading! Please add your personal favorites to the list by adding comments if you're so moved.

Posted by tom at September 8, 2003 06:14 PM

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