Home Office / Jeff Wuorio
5 Academy-worthy business movies

Want to learn the ins and outs of running a small business?

Burn every how-to book in sight. Play hooky from pricey seminars. Tell every consultant within earshot to go push someone else's paradigm.

Instead, fluff up the La-Z-Boy, zap a bag of nuclear corn and dig up your VCR remote.

Admittedly, there aren't many movies that address small-business success. Rewarding as it is, the average small business has enough drama to make "My Dinner with Andre" as nail-biting as the chariot race in "Ben Hur." But that's not to say there aren't solid, entertaining movies that offer nuggets of wisdom of why a small business clicks — or, rather, why it doesn't.

Here, in no particular order, is one reviewer's overview of five movies that, in one way or another, have a small-business lesson to offer (Yes, there are others that worthy of nomination, but this is my list):

  • "Casablanca"

    • The story: The tale of Rick's Café, set in North Africa as Nazi Germany is overrunning much of the world. Romance, mystery, intrigue, betrayal, the whole falafel — since you've probably seen this gem a few hundred times, no need for a plot recap.

    • Why it's good: The café does a thriving business because it knows its clientele and gives patrons what they want. And that means everything from looking the other way when Nazis belt their national anthem to letting local French officials win at the roulette table.

    • What it teaches: Granted, Rick's knows what turns a profit — a salient point of success for any small business. If letting the cops drink for free keeps the gambling tables humming, that's the price of commerce. But, in the end, Rick (and we) discover that there are more important things than the bottom line; that, if need be, it's essential to stick your neck out for someone else when it comes to doing the right thing. And that's good business in a broader sense of the term.

  • "Avalon"

    • The story: An immigrant family in early 20th century America. Amid other struggles, the family opens a department store and, for a time, thrives, moving from inner-city Baltimore to the more prosperous suburbs.

    • Why it's good: "Avalon" celebrates the wide-eyed, optimistic sense of enterprise that drove the country a century back. Hard work, diligence bordering on blind stubbornness — interwoven within a beautiful story of the dynamics of family life (check out the Thanksgiving mutiny over carving the turkey). "Avalon" illustrates the timeless dynamics that power business success.

    • What it teaches: On one hand, how hard work focused in the proper fashion reaps its rewards. But, as we see in the latter part of the film, to take nothing for granted, that the fortunes of business can tumble far faster than they can be built, often through the most simple of oversights.

  • "Glengarry Glen Ross"

    • The story: This does for real estate what Hitchcock did for quaint roadside motels. "Glengarry Glen Ross" portrays a struggling real estate office that can't move a single property. A hotshot executive unveils a sales contest: first place, a new car; second place, cutlery; third place, a pink slip.

    • Why it's good: Anyone who's ever had to work in a come-home-with-your-shield-or-on-it environment can empathize. Even if you haven't, it's hard not to cringe as the various salespeople struggle and scheme to stay afloat as the axe floats above each of their noggins.

    • What it teaches: If ever a film personified the slogan "The beatings will continue until morale improves," this is the baby. Admittedly, business is a tough nut, but "Glengarry Glen Ross" does a wonderful job of showing that business by threat of the guillotine is not merely ineffective, it's completely destructive.

  • "Clerks"

    • The story: The Quickie Mart from you-know-where. "Clerks" offers an hysterical, day-in-the-life glimpse of two convenience store workers and, in essence, just how wretched both their personal and their "professional" (quotes definitely warranted) have become.

    • Why it's good: You'll know if you've ever set foot in a convenience store and, upon leaving, felt the need for a purifying shower as quickly as possible. Amid the leathery meat snacks, fingered porno rags and bizarre customers — one is completely focused on finding the "perfect" dozen eggs — "Clerks" is gritty, occasionally repulsive but completely real.

    • What it teaches: Through the power of its wretched reality, "Clerks" amply illustrates how a prospective customer can see your business. Put another way: Would I go into a place that looks like this? Not bloody likely. And, nor would you. (When the star of the movie can't get the metal security gates open, he shoe polishes "I assure you, we are open" on the front of the building.) Wow, let's go there for a jerky and ginger ale!

  • "The Producers"

    • The story: For those of you who may have been chanting in a reclusive monastery for the past several years, "The Producers" by madman Mel Brooks tells the story of a failing Broadway mogul and a neurotic numbers cruncher who discovers that an overfunded flop is a greater money maker than an actual hit.

    • Why it's good: The 1968 movie that predates the Broadway musical is fall down funny, frequently tasteless but, in its own way, a thoughtful study of the quirks of the consuming public.

    • What it teaches: In these days of Enron and WorldCom, a reminder that cooked books almost always spoils. On top of that, never, ever assume anything is predetermined to be successful or for that matter, doomed to the grave. After years of well-intentioned failures, our heroes score big with a musical romp about Eva and Adolph at Berchtesgaden. If that seems completely implausible, just remember pet rocks, chalupa-hawking Chihuahuas, mood rings, inside-the-shell egg scramblers, pocket fishermen, Baby on Board signs . . .

  • Honorable mentions:

    • "It's a Wonderful Life": Jimmy Stewart makes us all feel good about running our own businesses.

    • "Citizen Kane": Kind of the antithesis of Wonderful Life, but it definitely has a moral to the story.

    • "Wall Street": What greed ultimately gets you. Maybe this should be required watching for some of the former execs at Enron.