Friday, April 23, 2010

Why Hollywood Loves Corporate Bad Guys

Ever notice that almost all bad guys in Hollywood these days are corporations? I know a lot of people on the right think this is an expression of socialism, an anti-capitalist instinct, but it’s really not. You’re reading too much into this. What it is, is lazy writing. Corporate villains are a crutch for unimaginative writers.
Corporations Are Not Your Friends
Before we delve into the reason Hollywood uses corporations as villains, let me point something out: there is nothing inherently “conservative” about corporations. In fact, the opposite is true. Conservatives believe in free markets economics. That means that we trust the decisions of millions of buyers and sellers to allocate resources. Thus, conservatives oppose anything that separates buyers or sellers from their natural incentives, because those separators distort the incentive system that makes markets work. Government support is a classic example of this because it reduces the risk to the person receiving the support and therefore distorts their incentives in favor of taking risks they otherwise wouldn’t.

Corporations are a form of distortion. Corporations separate owners from the costs of their actions, because of their limited liability feature. A normal person will bear the full cost of any harm they cause. But an owner of a corporation doesn’t. They are only liable up to the value of their investment. Moreover, the corporate structure, which provides decision making power to concentrated management teams, distorts decision making because managers and owners do not share the same incentives. Thus, corporations are not acting in the owners’ interests so much as they are acting in the managers’ interests.

Therefore, conservatives should be wary of corporations and should not be knee-jerk defending them. But that is neither here nor there when it comes to Hollywood because Hollywood doesn’t grasp anything about corporations or incentives, and it doesn’t care. Its only interest in corporations is that they are easy to use as villains.
Why Hollywood Writers Love Corporations
Hollywood uses corporations as villains because corporations have certain built-in traits that make them ideal for hack writers to use as villains. Consider this:

1. Inoffensive Villains. If there is one thing film producers don’t want in a blockbuster, it’s something offensive. They want everyone to see their “masterpiece.” Corporate villains are not offense. Why? Because corporations don’t instill loyalty in the public like countries, governments, ideologies, or even people do. If I make the United States the villain, then Americans will be angry. If I make the Pope the villain, then Catholics will be angry. If I make The Happy Bunny Munitions Company the villain, nobody gets bent out of shape. Indeed, the use of corporations is the easiest way to avoid offending anyone in the selection of your villain.

2. Easy Motives. Corporations also let you avoid the whole messy motive thing. Why does your villain want to blow up the moon again? If you choose religion or ideology, you’ll offend people. If you choose “because” or something that makes no sense, you’ll lose your audience. The use of corporations as villains lets you skip this problem. All corporations are motivated by money, everyone accepts that. So if you can somehow mumble enough words to make people think the plan will result in an improvement on the corporation’s bottom line, then you’re good to go.

3. No Troubling Back Stories. Best of all, corporations are born fully formed; they require no back story to explain how they got the things they have. Where exactly did Goldfinger (a noted sole proprietor) find all those henchmen? Heck, make him a corporation and you don’t need to worry about it. We all know that corporations all have military contracts, which will put them in contact with ex-military killers and give them access to high tech stuff. Right? Seriously, all the hack writer has to do is make the villain a corporation and they suddenly no longer need to explain (1) how the conspiracy formed, (2) how they got their facilities, (3) where they get their henchmen, (4) where they get their money, or (5) how they get all that cool stuff they use throughout the movie.

Indeed, because all corporations have secret “military divisions,” they can have access to the same sophisticated military hardware that the US military has and no one thinks twice about this. In fact, we’re even ready to believe they have stuff that even the military hasn’t seen before because they are developing it for the government. Problem solved without a word of explanation.

4. Easy Twists. Corporations have murky structures, thus they are rife for twists. Because corporate structure are malleable, it’s easy to create conspiracies within corporations where some people are aware of the evil activities and others aren’t. That lets the writer pick and choose who in the corporation is part of the plan and who is an innocent pawn. This allows the writer to place an unsuspecting person inside the organization who can help the hero at a critical time (usually with a computer code) without having to explain why one of the henchmen would suddenly change their minds and help the hero.

This also allows the writer to pull the old cliché of having people run to the boss, only to discover too late that the boss is in on it! Oh my, didn’t see that coming! Or it allows the cliché twist that the boss really is unaware of the evil under their nose and will now work to stop the bad guys. Again, no explanation of any sort is needed to explain the boss’s motivations in either direction except to note that they did or did not know about the conspiracy. Heck, this here movie almost writes itself!

5. Ease of Destruction. Finally, even a hack writer will need to end their movie. Sadly, this can be very difficult when you don’t know jack about the world and your characters are a mess. But using a corporate villain can solve this problem because anything can kill a corporation. Indeed, using a corporate bad guy gives you a maximum range of solutions from killing the right person, to exposing the entire corporation, to exposing just the right person, to bankrupting the corporation, or even just hitting the right delete key (because people never back up computers).

This comes in very helpful when you don’t have a clue how to plot your way from the initial discovery to an actual ending. Instead, after you blow some time, you just arrange a quick scene where the hero does the thing that will defeat the bad guy(s) and then let the credits role. Basically, by making the villain a corporation, the writer can tack on any sort of mindless ending and people will believe it.
Conclusion
Those are the real reasons Hollywood loves corporate villains, not ideological opposition to corporations. Corporate villains are nothing more than a fool proof crutch for hack writers that allow a movie to run from beginning to ending in 98 minutes with little or no depth or explanation, but with easy believability. Corporate villains don’t offend, they require no back story, they require little discussion of motive, and they are rife with ready-made clichés, not to mention that they require no careful plotting to be undone. It’s like a hack-writer’s dream!

It’s not about ideology, it’s about lack of imagination.

22 comments:

ScottDS said...

Everything you've said is true. Even the original Get Smart joked about Kaos being "a Delaware Corporation." (But it was just a joke - they didn't actually explore this idea.)

I think the biggest reason is simply greed. Everyone understands greed is a powerful motivator and it's easy to write. When was the last time you saw a movie villain motivated by envy? Or one of the other sins? Hell, doesn't sloth = inactivity? You can't have a movie with characters who are inactive.

With all of these "superhero deconstructions," I'm surprised no one has done a story about this: where henchmen come from, where the gadgets come from. It could be very funny. Not even the Austin Powers movies touched on this and they were supposed to poke fun at genre conventions.

I watched RoboCop the other day. I imagine some conservatives bristle at the whole anti-corporate angle but, where OCP is concerned, it's really just these two asshole guys (the characters played by Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer). The "old man" who runs the company seems like a good guy. Of course there are satirical elements in the film and the idea of a corporation owning a police force was ahead of its time (not to mention Cox's line about non-profit sectors like space exploration).

But the film itself has a very conservative John Wayne good vs. evil "sheriff comes to clean up the town" thing going on. Policemen loved the movie when it came out.

I have more but I'll wait for your reply. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I remember the KAOS joke, which I thought was very funny.

I think "because it's easy" is the answer. For all the reasons I outlined above, using a corporate villain is the easiest because you don't need to explain anything to make it work. It's like pluggin in a generic "the conspiracy."

It's interesting that you mention greed as an evil motive, because it is. . . but it's also now becoming an acceptable motive for good guys. In fact, the proliferation of heist movies has made greed into a common trait among "cool" good guys.

I think you're right about RoboCop -- the bad guys are two guys within the company. The rest of the company seems pretty bland.

In terms of henchmen, Austin Powers did deal with this slightly in a couple of outtakes, but didn't really cover it. The closest I've seen on that was Blazing Saddles when they hired all their thugs. Very funny scene.

ScottDS said...

The Kaos joke was very funny. In fact, when Fox briefly brought Get Smart back in the mid-90s (I'm not kidding; they did!), they went even further and referred to Kaos as "Kaos Incorporated." For more info click here.

I wonder how much of it has to do with believability. Audiences nowadays have seen everything but they can also believe that a large multi-national corporation has access to cool technology and unsavory characters who are in it for the money. They might be LESS willing to believe in some evil Spectre-like organization with a cat-petting "arch villain" who works inside a volcano. Sometimes the most evil people are the ones who aren't outwardly evil.

Getting off on a slight tangent, when I was in high school, I tried writing a screenplay. I haven't looked at it in years but it was an R-rated teen comedy, ostensibly based on my senior year. Taking a cue from stadiums and arenas, I named the school in the movie after a (made-up) corporation. Think Lockheed-Martin. But I never made a statement about it; it was simply there. It wasn't evil; it only wanted naming rights.

I also developed a sequel idea in which our lead character gets a job at the company itself, at a local office. Again, no evil... just good employees trying to make an honest buck. If I made the company evil, it would be a whole different story. But the idea of a large corporation having a cool R&D department fascinates me - the Skunk Works and all that. That's where the cool tech comes from.

And looking back on it now, I realize there are several conservative-friendly elements I included without realizing it! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

So you've always been a closet conservative? LOL!

I think "believability" and "easy" are two sides of the same coin.

When you create a villain, you need to explain their motives, how they got to where they are, and where they get their stuff (i.e. equipment, money, facilities). If you make the villain a "multi-national corporation," then there is no reason to explain most of that because people already believe that corporations are capable of doing, being and having all of these things. That makes them an easy way to cut out lots of explanation AND it's automatically believable.

The less you have to explain, the more likely people are to believe your story because there is less for them to have to process and less that they can poke holes into.

That makes corporations ideal because they are short hand for "all-powerful, all-purpose villain."

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I think there may be another reason as well. By painting corporations as comic-book villains, Hollywood draws attention away from the two most evil corporations of all: the movie industry, and the US Congress.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Isn't that the truth!

ScottDS said...

LawHawk -

I agree about Congress but to give them some credit, most of the time when Hollywood is portrayed in a movie, it's not in a good light at all (Swimming with Sharks, The Player, Wag the Dog, Sunset Boulevard, etc.).

Andrew -

I'm not a closet anything (I'll let my friends make up their own "closet case" jokes). But the script in question deals with my time as a member of a school club called DECA: Distributive Education Clubs of America. It's all about marketing, business, entrepreneurship, etc. I did a project on the free enterprise system and won an award for it - the only trophy I have to my name.

I suppose that, by its very nature, is conservative. I also have a "take no guff" marketing teacher who's smarter than the students (unlike so many other teacher characters), a classmate who's saving herself for marriage (and is not portrayed as a religious psycho), a stable family unit, a senior class president who can best be described as "photogenic but vacuous," and a school principal who'll only listen to you if your family has money.

I should get cracking on this again! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I you think you have a good idea, then by all means work on it. Just don't lock yourself into a bad idea. In other words, if it doesn't seem perfect to you, then don't be afraid to make changes -- even big ones.

Re: Hollywood's penchant for putting out anti-Hollywood movies strikes me as self-indulgent. It would be one thing if they were more realistic, but they are always so vastly overblown and ridiculous that I have a hard time seeing them as anything more than parody. Swimming With Sharks in particular struck me that it was written by a wannabe who just took every rumor they ever heard about and all the clichés they could find and strung them together into a pointless movie that they mistakenly thought was "deep and biting."

Joel Farnham said...

Major Conflicts in literature.

Man against Man.
Man against Nature.
Man against Supernatural.
Man against Machine.
Man against Himself.

There are others. Corporations are just another one. I agree with you Andrew that it is a lazy choice.

Unfortunately it has become the choice from Hollywood which in turn inspires others to demonize corporations (Obama).

ScottDS said...

Andrew - I know, and I wasn't excusing Hollywood. And you're right - very often it's over the top (though I hate to think how realistic Jeremy Piven's character in Entourage might be). :-)

But it all goes back to laziness. I look at some movies now and think to myself, "How would it have been done in the 70s?" when these things were a little more realistic and mysterious and the politics took a backseat to the story.

During my time in the NASA study, I watched The China Syndrome... anti-corporate this, anti-nuclear that, and even a line of dialogue, something like, "They have their own security men!"

But it's a very good movie, with genuine suspense and heartfelt performances. On one hand, the movie would get nitpicked to death if it were to come out now, but on the other hand, it probably wouldn't be as good.

LawHawkRFD said...

UNRELATED SIDE NOTE: The second SEAL on trial for the "mis-handling" of a terrorist detainee has been acquitted of all charges. Unlike yesterday's acquittal, this trial was conducted by a judge rather than a jury. That's two down, one to go, and the prosecution's case has now fallen apart completely. If the two SEALs charged with covering up the alleged assault have been acquitted, that leaves little of the actual charge to be tried in the final case. Both the jury yesterday and the judge today found the prosecution testimony and evidence to be totally unreliable and conjectural.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, It probably does help demonize corporations, which is actually kind of ironic since large corporations have become so interwined with left wing causes these days -- look, for example, at their massive "charitable" giving to leftist groups.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think they would have been very different movies in the 1970s. I doubt they would have been as cynical or as vicious, and I think they would have been more concerned with the story first and the body slams second. Most of the ones produced today are nothing but body slams.

I liked the China Syndrome because I thought it was a good movie. I don't agree with the message, but it struck me as a decent movie with (for the most part) decent characters. I think it would have been stronger if they'd gotten rid of the hitmen, but that it seems Hollywood can't make a movie without a little killing. Oh well.

rlaWTX said...

I think I'd rather the faceless corporation as the bad guy instead of the military or other convoluted bad guys. Yeah, lazy on their part, believable on mine, but I also don;t have to get irritated by the underlying message of who the PC evil represents in the "real world".
But, I admit that I don't watch/go to the movies to think deeply. It's like reading (non-class material): ESCAPE!

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I think that's the reason Hollywood is so comfortable with corporations as bad guys -- it doesn't upset people and it's easy to believe.

When you start using other bad guys, you run into questions of ideology or religion or patriotism and that upsets people. Or you end up with something like "terrorists from Kersplatistan" which leaves people scratching their heads. It's just a lot safer to make the bad guy some faceless, nameless, large multinational corporation.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I'm not saying it's a wrong choice, though I do think it's become a very lazy choice, I'm mainly pointing out that it's not done because of some anti-capitalist motive. It's done because it's easy and safe.

Tennessee Jed said...

It is certainly an interesting theory, Andrew. There is, of course, no way of knowing for certain what the motivation is. As Joel points out, there is an awful lot of formula writing going on. As it turns out, that is not merely lazy, it theoretically helps underscore "the message" that the private sector makes a great Doctor Evil while government is a shining knight for the little guy.

While some of the assumptions about corporations are a bit convoluted, there is no question, the corporate structure causes decisions which are designed to impact short term stock price instead of long term health of the organization.

As far as giving to leftwing causes though, there may be a couple of different issues in play. First, many liberals are running corporations these days. They have shown a definite propensity to let their personal ideology trump what would seem to be a more rational course of action. Second, corporations would donate to any politician or cause if they think it will help them receive favorable treatment.

ScottDS said...

Jed -

Re: motivation - that's what bothers me. In today's hyper-partisan 24/7 Twitterized culture, everyone's looking for the subtext in everything. The hidden meanings, the agendas, etc.

Unfortunately, while there have been movies and filmmakers that have ruined it for others, sometimes one person's "anti-corporate propaganda" is simply someone else's story they wanted to tell. If I make a movie about a serial killer, it doesn't mean I'm pro-serial killer or that I condone their actions. Same thing with gay characters. The inclusion of a gay character doesn't necessarily = gay propaganda.

Sadly, there are way too many knee-jerk reactions to this stuff. And not just on the right. Pajamas Media did a story on critics on the left who criticized director Jason Retiman for not pandering enough with Juno and Thank-You for Smoking. He had the (gasp) audacity to present a tobacco lobbyist as a fully-realized human being and not a mustache-twirling villain.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree. I think that too many people are too overly-sensitive to everything these days.

I also think that too many people don't grasp how the system works. Writers are concerned primarily with getting their work bought -- which means not doing anything "risky." Producers want their films seen by everyone, so they try to avoid offending anyone. That means bland and safe.

Some films are openly political, but those tend to be ego projects. Some directors (Avatar) have enough money that they can be political without worrying about it. But the other 99% simply want to produce something that puts butts into seats -- and that means don't do anything to anger your audience.

United Citizens Council said...

I think a good rule of thumb would be to do the opposite of the cliche. So, how about...

A liberal do-gooder law student comes across some shabby looking people holding signs protesting a corporation. They have their sob stories of being unfairly targeted and laid off for whatever reasons. The young soon-to-be lawyer takes up their case as his cause.

He helps look for evidence inside the corporation by getting a job as an intern in its legal departments. The shabby fellows tell him of a friendly employee who soons passes corporate info to the "hero" of the story.

At every step he ignores a news report or some evidence that the info he smuggles out is being employed by another corporation and the "grass roots" organization the shabby people belong to.
Class action lawsuits and media attention to their cause has brought the "evil" corporation to it's knees.

Finally the do-gooder figures out the shabby people, their organization, their protest against the corporation he has almost brought down was all funded and managed by persons in a rival corporation. And at the center of it all was himself, he had been their fall guy if the conspiracy was uncovered. He had personally committed corporate espionage and everything else.

Revealing this conspiracy means that he himself will have to go to prison too! How is that for a quandry? How is that for drama?

AndrewPrice said...

I think turning cliches on their heads is an excellent way to make something that will feel fresh to the audience because you go against the things they are expecting and that will get them to take note.

Dave Olson said...

Again, I'm late to the discussion. Oh, well.

A few months ago, I was watching "The Electric Horseman". It's not bad as 70s movies go, and if you let yourself forget how much you despise the stars' politics (Jane Fonda and Robert Redford) it's a rather enjoyable way to kill 2 hours.

The main villain is, naturally, a large corporation. They bought a Triple Crown champion to use as their mascot, and they ferry the horse (and Redford, as a breakfast cereal cowboy like Cap'n Crunch) all over the country. Redford discovers that The Big Bad Company has been giving the horse steroids and tranquilizers so that it looks good and doesn't freak out in a crowd. Eventually, Redford steals the horse with the intention of letting him run free among wild horses somewhere in the Great American West. But before he does that, he confronts the CEO of BigBadCorp and airs his grievances. I'd seen the movie many times on cable but suddenly, in the confrontation scene, I had a revelation.

All that to say this: Corporations are the go-to Hollywood villains because they are run by CEOs, and corporate CEOs in movies are metaphors for studio executives and movie producers. They are the only bona fide capitalists that most writers have any contact with, so naturally they assume that ALL bigshot execs in ALL businesses are as petty, vindictive, and downright mean as the studio heads.

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