And The Award Goes to...The Defendant

By Josh Ruthizer

Last weekend was the 91st Academy Awards.  In honor of the Oscars, I thought I would take a look at some of the movies about financial and securities fraud that have won or been nominated for Oscars, and what we can learn from them.  Warning, some of the movie clips linked in this post may contain profanity (or actors who have allegedly engaged in illegal conduct).

Features

Wall Street (1987)

It is not a stretch to say that Oliver Stone’s classic Wall Street is the original modern film about financial fraud.  Michael Douglas’s Best Actor winning performance as corporate raider and insider trader Gordon Gekko is so good that people on the real Wall Street idolized Gekko, something Douglas has never understood. The Teldar Paper scene not only launched one of the most famous catch phrases of all time – Greed is Good – but also gives us a pretty good example of how a hostile takeover, proxy fight, and leveraged buy-out (LBO) goes down.  Blue Horseshoe loves this movie!

The Big Short (2015)

Adam McKay and Charles Randolph won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for this movie based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name.  I still love to watch Ryan Gosling’s speech, using Jenga as a visual aid, of how Residential Mortgage Backed Securities (RMBSs) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) were full of bad loans, and that investors could make money once they failed (selling insurance on a house on fire, as Gosling calls it).  This movie, and its cut-away educational scenes, has a lot to teach us and help us understand the 2008 Financial Crisis.  Disclosure:  Wolf Popper represented investors in a litigation against JP Morgan over RMBS it sold to investors. 

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

While The Wolf of Wall Street did not win an Oscar, it was nominated for five, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter).  Based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name, the movie tells the story of how Belfort and his employees get rich selling worthless penny stocks over the phone, and commit market manipulation and other frauds too numerous to list.  Anyone who watches this movie gets a strong warning not to trust, and to never buy anything from, a stock broker or trader that cold calls you with a great investing idea.  This movie also set the Guinness World Record for the most swearing in a motion picture, with 506 instances, almost 2.81 times per minute.  For an interesting contrast in time periods, check out the (not Oscar nominated) 1929 movie The Wolf of Wall Street, starring George Bancroft as The Wolf, a stockbroker who corners the market on copper and then sells short, making a fortune but ultimately ruining his finances and those of his friends.        

Margin Call (2011)

Nominated for best original screenplay, this movie takes place over a 24-hour period in 2008 and asks the question what if your investment bank discovered the mortgages and RMBS you (and everyone else) owned were worthless, but no one outside the bank had yet put it together?  Well, if you are the bank in this movie, you sell those securities, which you know to be worthless, to clients and customers in order to get the bad investments off your books.  Jeremy Iron’s turn as the bank CEO, and his advice that there are three ways to make money in finance – be smarter, cheat, or be first – will stick with you.

Trading Places (1983)

Nominated for best original score, and loosely based on the Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places shows how to insider trade and corner the market on frozen concentrated orange juice futures, all while Dan Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III and Eddie Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine take revenge on the Duke Brothers (who have turned Winthorpe’s and Valentine’s lives upside down to win a $1 bet over whether nature (breeding) or nurture (experience) makes a good commodities trader.  A feel good movie for the holiday season!

Honorable Mention:  Too Big to Fail (2011)

No Oscar nominations for this HBO movie, but it did receive three Golden Globe nominations, eleven Emmy nominations, and two Screen Actors Guild nominations, including a Best Actor win for Paul Giamatti for his role as former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.  Whenever someone asks me for a simple explanation of how the 2008 Financial Crisis accelerated, I point them to this scene from the movie

Documentaries

Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

This Oscar nominated documentary from Alex Gibney (who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side) traces the rise and fall of Enron, the one company everyone thinks of when they hear securities fraud.  Interesting fact, former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling got out of prison in August 2018 after serving 11 years.     

Abacus:  Small Enough to Jail (2016)

This Oscar nominated documentary focuses on Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family owned community bank in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan.  Abacus was deemed “small enough to jail” rather than “too big to fail,” and because the only U.S. financial institution that was criminally indicted in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Inside Job (2010)     

Not to be confused with Spike Lee’s Inside Man, Oscar winning documentary Inside Job takes a closer look at what caused the 2008 Financial Crisis.  Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe called this movie “Scarier than anything Wes Craven and John Carpenter have ever made.”

What are your favorite movies about financial and securities fraud?  Comment and let us know.