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Wall Street through the eyes of Hollywood – how realistic are movies about financial services?

Mary Harron's American Pyscho, starring Christian Bale, is based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis.

If you’re anything like me, you love the movies. For me, there is nothing like going to see a terrific film, especially if that film is about Wall Street. I am endlessly fascinated by the ways in which Hollywood portrays what we do and how we do it. Whether its SNL and its infamous change bank skit, Dave Chappelle’s Wu-Tang Financial or a movie like The Big Short, Hollywood and Wall Street go together like milk and chocolate.

For the most part, when I go to see a movie or watch a TV show about Wall Street, I constantly look to see what the producers and directors got right and what they got wrong. Who in this business hasn’t wondered whether Oliver Stone’s 1987 masterpiece Wall Street is in fact what life was like during the hay-days of corporate raiders and hostile takeovers?

Likewise, who hasn’t asked themselves how the heck did they come up with the plot of Trading Places and whether any of that film had any real connection to what it was like to trade commodities in the 1980s.

I’ve asked myself these very questions. Namely, does Hollywood’s version of Wall Street match up with reality? We surveyed our podcast audience to find out which of their favorite Wall Street movies they thought were most realistic.

[caption id="attachment_269378" align="alignnone" width="300"]Wall Street movies, Wall Street films, movies about Wall Street, Wall Street, banking, banks, bankers, investment banking, investment banks, investment bankers, finance, financial services, professional services, audit, auditing, auditors, accounting, accountants, CPA, CPAs, Big 4, Big Four, management consulting, management consultants, consulting, consultants, hedge funds, hedge fund managers, asset managers, fund managers, mutual funds, ETFs, mutual fund managers, asset management, wealth management, wealth managers, wealth management firms, RIAs, registered investment advisers, advisers, advisors, financial advisers, financial advisors, FAs, IB, IBD, fintech, financial technology, risk, risk management, compliance, analyst, analysts, investment banking analysts, research analysts, investment analysts, investment management, investment managers, private equity, PE, recruiters, recruitment, hiring, hiring managers, firing, layoffs, laid off, job search, job-search, Wall Street hiring Source: TABB Group[/caption]


Then we hit the streets, talking with the actual people who are represented in some of Hollywood’s biggest movies about the Street.  Interestingly, what we found out not only surprised us but made us want Hollywood to make more movies about what we do.

When it comes to reality, not only does Hollywood get it right more often than not, we found out that our favorite movies, namely Trading Places, Wall Street (the original movie, not Wall Street II, Money Never Sleeps), Boiler Room, Margin Call and of course The Big Short, are not only terrific films, but also have a strong foundation in reality.

[caption id="attachment_269379" align="alignnone" width="262"]Michael Douglas, Oliver Stone, Wall Street, Wall Street movies, Wall Street films, movies about Wall Street Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone's Wall Street[/caption]

Yes, Trading Places is in fact on its surface Freaky Friday on Wall Street.  But according to Michael Reddy, a former commodities broker who traded Frozen Concentrated Orange Futures in the 1980s, all of the trading scenes in that movie were spot on. Even the scene where the Duke Brothers, the evil, manipulative scoundrels who attempt to illegally corner the Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice market, take the order book from their broker who collapsed on the floor of the exchange. Per Reddy, this happened more often than you would think; if a trader dropped while on the floor someone was there to snatch up his book and run down his sheet. Who knew?

Likewise, we wanted to know if Mike Nichols’ Working Girl oversold the sexism that existed on Wall Street in the mid-‘80s, so we tracked down a former secretary from Staten Island who worked on the Street, just like Melanie Griffith’s character. According to Maureen Bender, a former secretary and junior trader, not only did the movie capture what it was like to be a young woman on Wall Street, it painted an accurate picture of what Bender’s life was like. Just like the Griffith character, she was attending night school to further her career and she too had a “rat bastard” boyfriend who was constantly cheating on her while she was at the office.

So, while not every movie is a fair representation of what life is like on Wall Street, a fair number of directors do in fact get it right, especially those like Adam McKay’s 2015 hit The Big Short, which unlike many other films did not focus on the cheating, lies and outrageous lifestyles of the rich that many expect to see from Wall Street. Instead, McKay tells the story of a unique opportunity that his characters took advantage of within a regular, otherwise unexciting life on Wall Street.

Similarly, Hollywood is working on its next big picture about life on the Street. The Wizard of Lies, starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Alessandro Nivola, is about to hit the airwaves via HBO. According to Nivola, the movie does a great job of getting it right. He stressed that the production team paid a great deal of attention to the details of Bernie Madoff’s $65bn Ponzi scheme.

In the end, what did we learn? First off, everyone on the Street dislikes Wall Street II, Money Never Sleeps.

Second, that like everything else in this world, the answer is dependent upon who you talk with and what company and specific role you’re talking about. Hollywood can get it right every once in a while. Then again, sometimes they get it wrong, as is the case with Wall Street II, Money Never Sleeps. Stay away from that one – you will thank me in the end.

Alexander Tabb is the co-host and creator of the Wall & Broadcast podcast at TABB Group.

AUTHORAlexander Tabb Insider Comment
  • Se
    Sean O'Brien
    30 December 2016

    Great Read. Missing I think is the fact that the Heavy Weight Wall Street Big Screen gems, Wall Street, Liars Poker and even Boiler Room, for the millennial crowd, are all anti Wall Street screeds. Meant to have deep moralistic messages, they served for a generation as a How To or Guide Book for a Wall St Career. Buddy Fox is an icon for a generation of seasoned Wall St Types, not a villain. I'm sure that was not the intended message Oliver Stone or Michael Lewis intended. Anyone in finance or Investments n their 40's or 50's will attest to this, yet it is little mentioned in the main stream.

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