For those of us who don’t work on Wall Street or Bay Street, Hollywood is our window into the financial business.
Sometimes, like when Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine learns about commodity trading in Trading Places, or when Margot Robbie explains subprime mortgages in The Big Short, movies do a pretty good job of showing us how things work. But not all films take as much care to give viewers the facts.
In Advisor versus Film, real-life traders, estate experts, deal makers and finance gurus look past the movie magic to uncover what’s real.
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Margin Call (2011)
Writer and director J.C. Chandor says he drew on his father’s nearly 40-year career at investment bank Merrill Lynch for the screenplay. What’s more, the film was shot in the recently vacated New York offices of an investment firm.
Beyond these touches of authenticity, the film gets most things about the investment world right, but exaggerates some aspects, says Kent Womack, finance professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. Full review
Wall Street (1987)
While much has changed since 1987, advisor and former trader Kathleen Peace thinks the greed-is-good attitude is still prevalent on trading floors today. “I don’t think that will ever change; I don’t know how it could. It’s clear that the guys at the top don’t care about clients,” she says. And, she says books such as Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys show that today on Wall Street, greed and money are more important than ethics. Full review
Trading Places (1983)
The movie, which was shot during trading hours at New York’s commodities exchange, does a good job of illustrating how commodities trading was done. “In that respect, the execution of how they traded orange juice contracts from 1983 was accurate. From today, not really: Billy Ray and Winthorpe would just log into a computer,” says Murray Hodgins, commodity and futures advisor and derivatives portfolio manager at PI Financial Corp.
“I have to give the movie a five out of 10. But in no way does that reflect on the movie itself; what it does very well is show the fast pace of the futures market, and the movie is really fun.” Full review
Working Girl (1988)
The movie’s portrayal of working in 1980s finance, making deals and networking are “all exaggerated but based on reality,” says Ken Smith, business strategy consultant and co-author of The Art of M&A Strategy: A Guide To Building Your Company’s Future.
Working Girl shows “the challenges of getting good talent recognized when it doesn’t come from the best schools or isn’t the traditional package, the art of the deal, and the importance of being part of the business community.” Full review
A Good Year (2006)
Near the beginning of the film, fictional bond trader Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) commands his firm’s bond trading floor. To rally his traders, he says, “Today is Greedy Bastard Day. The secret to riches is the same as the secret to comedy: timing.”
Brian Calder, a senior bond trader with Franklin Bissett Investment Management in Calgary, says greed should never be a motivator. “We want to take advantage of inefficiencies we see in the market. But greed is difficult because what created your riches last year won’t necessarily do so this year.”
However, Skinner was right about timing, he says. “Timing is everything. The challenge is you don’t necessarily know in advance if you’re engaging in your actions at the best time. You’ll only know after the fact.” Full review
Brewster’s Millions (1985)
The film tell the story of overconfident minor-league baseball pitcher Montgomery Brewster, who has the chance to inherit the massive estate of a great-uncle he’s never met. But as the film’s prologue says, Brewster (Richard Pryor) is “handed the American Dream on a very hot plate.” To inherit US$300 million, he first has to spend $30 million in 30 days — without telling anyone the reason behind his spree.
Tom Junkin, senior vice president of Personal Trust Services and Operations at Fiduciary Trust Canada, says the conditions are unique, but could stand legally. “The rule of thumb is courts try to make a testator’s intention come through. They will be biased toward trying to make it happen, but a condition will be void in certain circumstances.”
For instance, the conditions could be voided if they are illegal, contrary to the rules of society, or impossible, he says. “The main thing is was there any harm done by the conditions?” says Junkin. “Where’s the harm in asking someone to meet a test in spending a bunch of money?” Full review
The Big Short (2015)
Based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the film accessibly portrays the collapse of the housing market and the economic impact of financial instruments like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). It’s humorous at times — such as when actress Margot Robbie explains shorting the market to the audience while in a bubble bath — and at other moments it’s heart wrenching, as we see millions of people losing their jobs and homes. While mostly renamed, the film’s characters are based on real-life traders and investors.
So, was the film’s depiction of the finance industry and the 2008 crisis accurate? Hollywood thinks so — the film won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. But what do finance experts think? University of Toronto finance and economics professor Alexander Dyck and PWL Capital investment advisor Ben Felix say it’s accurate — for the most part. Full review
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
In the 1960s, Frank Abagnale Jr. cashed millions of dollars of forged cheques and impersonated a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, all before he celebrated his 19th birthday. Abagnale Jr., who went on to help authorities catch other frauds, eventually wrote a book about his exploits. But how many of his brazen crimes — including tax evasion, cheque and identity fraud — would be possible today? We asked ex-CRA investigator and current CPA Edward Sheehan. Full review