Murderous Businessmen

Jonah is wondering why Hollywood types always imagine big businessmen knocking off their enemies, when this seems to happen so rarely (if ever) in real life.

I know I’ve blogged about this before, but a diligent search doesn’t turn up the post, so I’ll just repeat it.

Here’s my theory. Even ignoring the fact that a lot of Hollywood writers tend to be leftist, some of them may actually have personal reasons to hate “big business” and think it venal. For them, it often is.

First of all–they work in Hollywood, for those well-known paragons of probity and above-board accounting, television and film studios, and production companies. And horror stories about them abound. One could easily see why, if that was the only experience one had with the business world, one would have a pretty jaundiced view toward business and businessmen.

But there’s another part that is less obvious. People tend (rightly) to write what they know. And when screen writers are between screen-writing gigs, who do they work for?

Well, here’s a clue. What is one of the most common businesses to be depicted in television and movies? Think, for example, “Bewitched.” Or “Thirty Something.”

That’s right. Ad agencies. I haven’t done the research (it would be a good thesis project), but I’ll bet that television and film characters work at ad agencies vastly out of proportion to the number of people who do so in the real world.

After all, it’s a natural fit for a creative writer.

But it’s also (based on a lot of stories I’ve heard from people who have done it) one of the most vicious, back-stabbing industries in the nation, dominated by creative types rather than rational businessmen and good managers.

So, it only makes sense that if your only employment experience with business, big or otherwise, is working for the entertainment industry or the ad business, you’re not going to have much appreciation for how a real business, where you have to actually develop and manufacture things that people go out and willingly buy, and has to be run by people with a talent for business (not murder and skullduggery), actually works. It’s actually quite similar to the reason that life in the military is rarely depicted accurately. They have no real-life experience.

19 comments on this post.
  1. David A. Young:

    Especially in its first few years, I thought “Stargate 1” did a good job of depicting military culture and protocols with a fair degree of accuracy. Other than always being out-of-uniform sans caps. (Full Disclosure: Though I’ve been friends with quite a few military people and had the opportunity to see them at work occasionally, I’ve never served, so my opinion is less than fully informed.)

  2. Jardinero1:

    How does one know what it’s really like in Hollywood or an ad agency if one has never worked there? For that matter how do you know, for sure, that “Hollywood types always imagine big businessmen knocking off their enemies”? What are “Hollywood types”? How does one know “the fact a lot of Hollywood writers tend to be leftist”? Talk about generalization heaped onto generalization.

  3. Rand Simberg:

    Because I watch television and movies, and I know a lot of Hollywood types. Didn’t you even follow the link?

  4. Brent:

    Hey Rand, you got on The Corner!

    see 3/17 10:53am (sorry, can’t find a link beyond http://corner.nationalreview.com/)!

  5. philw1776:

    Here’s the link to The Corner

  6. Carl Pham:

    It’s a clever theory, but a little too clever for my belief. For one thing, the evil big businessman who whacks his enemies is far more widespread a pop culture icon than would be the case if it were limited to liberal arts majors who ended up struggling Hollywood writers and advertising writers. Also, I think your generalization of the ad industry is far too sweeping and severe to be likely to be true.

    How about a simpler theory, based on ordinary human psychology? Folks who have to work hard for a living — whether they are writing movie scripts or, more importantly, are in the audience to whom a scriptwriter must appeal to succeed — are naturally envious of wealthy businessmen. Unlike rock stars, star athletes, or military leaders, great businessmen don’t have any obvious quality that marks them out for success and wealth. The qualities that make you a successful businessman are much more understated than wonderful good looks, amazing reflexes, or charismatic force of personality. They tend to be such things as flexible and innovative thinking, self-discipline, quiet cheerfulness, being good at getting along with people and coaxing them into cooperating.

    So reg’lar people are jealous of successful CEOs. And they also indulge in a bit of projection: if I were that wealthy and someone pissed me off, I’d just have him killed. Of course, it’s thinking this way that marks them out as people who will never understand how to succeed in business. The man who succeeds in business is the one who never needs to have his enemies killed, because he salways find a way to turn them into customers instead.

  7. BruceB:

    They say that Titanic made so much money even Hollywood accountants had trouble hiding it all.

  8. redneck:

    >>>>>The qualities that make you a successful businessman are much more understated than wonderful good looks, amazing reflexes, or charismatic force of personality. They tend to be such things as flexible and innovative thinking, self-discipline, quiet cheerfulness, being good at getting along with people and coaxing them into cooperating.

    As a business owner, I can tell you that working as many hours as it takes, being somewhat willing to take chances, and putting business before pleasure are major factors. Those things are often a price that many people refuse to pay. Then some get attitude because you don’t give them a free
    ride when you are doing so well. I could go on.

  9. Mark R. Whittington:

    The phenomenom gets to be more entertaining due to the fact that very rarely does a Hollywood screeplay tend to be the product of just one imagination. For instance, the upcoming Indiana Jones film is the product of Spielberg, Lucas, Harrison Ford, and about five or so screenwriters. A lot of people can have input to what goes into a screen story. So even if the person credited as the screenwriter knows anything about business, or the military, or whatever, he/she can often get overruled by an opinionated but ignorent director or producer.

  10. doctorpat:

    I’ve written about this myself (http://www.geocities.com/pipeline/2955/blog/archive7.html#21/06/2002)

    in an article where I looked at some related matters:

    1. Superheros are mostly reporters (a reporter is obviously “writing as a hero”, so when they needed a job for superman (or spiderman) that’s what a writer chooses.
    2. Prostitutes are always heroes or heroic victims. Compare this to say… doctors, who are heroes only half the time, and villians the rest. Or engineers, who never appear at all except in the background wearing a white coat.

  11. Edward Wright:

    1. Superheros are mostly reporters (a reporter is obviously “writing as a hero”, so when they needed a job for superman (or spiderman) that’s what a writer chooses.

    Spiderman is actually a photographer, not a writer. The only other examples that come to mind are Superman and the original Captain Marvel. (Of course, that’s hardly surprising. Judge Learned Hand declared Captain Marvel to be a plagiarism of Superman.)

    There are also quite a few superhero millionaires/billionaires: Batman, Green Arrow, and Iron Man come to mind.

    Or engineers, who never appear at all except in the background wearing a white coat.

    A white coat? Are ye color blind, now, laddy? 🙂

  12. Alan K. Henderson:

    Here’s a bias that Rand can sink his teeth into: in space-borne sci-fi government is almost always A major player – even if one excludes warfare stories, where the government presence is unavoidable. “Hollywood” has a difficult time conceiving completely private-sector extraterrestrial settings.

    Sometimes evil corporations show up in space opera, too (Fifth Element). So does the broken window fallacy (starting at 00:48 in the video) – but I digress.

  13. Chris Gerrib:

    There’s another, even simpler, explanation. Basically, having somebody killed raises the dramatic stakes immensely. If the worst thing that could happen to the character is get fired, well, that’s not very dramatic.

    Another reason for murderous businessmen is that it’s a shorthand for “pure evil.” A businessman that just wants to out-compete somebody is basically a decent guy. If he wants to wack somebody, well, he’s obviously evil.

  14. Chuck Divine:

    Reality check, people. Some (probably most) business leaders are, in fact, fine people who make solid contributions to our society. But all? Haven’t any of you faced a manager who seems quite destructive? A damned tyrant? I know I have. How do the bad ones get ahead? Perhaps by being “yes” men and women, not talented contributors to society.

    Why do Hollywood types create the vile boss? Perhaps because it sells tickets? Quite a few people would like to see some representative of the hated boss get his just desserts.

  15. Nolanimrod:

    Another type that turns up a lot is strippers, especially on crime shows. And when it comes to back-biting, conniving business people, you can’t find a more motivated bunch. At the end of the night they may give all their loot to a greasy junky, but until then they’re going to get every cent out of you any way they can.

  16. rjschwarz:

    Two points. First if you’ve ever seen the movie SWIMMING WITH SHARKS or THE PLAYER you’d get the impression that Hollywood Producers are somewhat vile angry people that one could easily imagine killing someone. That is probably closer to the writers experience than an ad agency.

    Second, I can easily imagine a rap mogul killing someone. I could be wrong but I think there’s probably an example or two out there and considering their limited numbers…

  17. Ilya:

    in space-borne sci-fi government is almost always A major player – even if one excludes warfare stories, where the government presence is unavoidable. “Hollywood” has a difficult time conceiving completely private-sector extraterrestrial settings.

    Really? Movies which immediately come to mind — “Alien” series, “Outland”, “Adventures of Pluto Nash”, “Pitch Black”. First one has an evil corporation and the second one has an evil drug-dealing boss (acting without corporation’s knowledge), but in all of them government has exactly the kind of minimal role Golden Age SF writers described — dealing with extreme threats, while all economic activity is in private hands.

  18. Josh Reiter:

    Of course I gat that foo you don’t submit his rp-29 accountz recevablez form with the subsequents cost center approvals. He be shit crazy fo brains even thinking about disrepectin’ my divisional procurement line itemizations.

    And I can’t stands some peep who don’t gets his outputs from the photo copier all wastin paypa and shits. This one foo left a whole stack of paypa on the copier with his whole inbox of emails printin out from last month. I called him other all calms like, “Mr. Johnson can you please see me for a minute by the copier”. And he’s like , “Righty-O”. And when he comes over to the copier and yelled “Break yo-self, we a paypa-less office foo!!” And I smashed his head through the glass of the photo copier and then hit the fitey copy button and swipped the photo scanner ‘cross his face back and fo. Stupid ass beeyotch!!

  19. TGGP:

    It is curious how infrequently vice-presidents carry out assassinations.