Thursday 22 February 2018

It's the big ask: trying to make the 2008 financial crisis good fun to watch

A new movie seeks to tease out some dark truths of the financial crash, using humour as leverage. And it might just work, says Anousha Sakoui

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in a scene from The Big Short, which opens in Ireland next month
Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in a scene from The Big Short, which opens in Ireland next month

Anousha Sakoui

Hollywood is trying a new way to get film fans interested in the 2008 financial crisis, turning the worst market collapse since the Great Depression into a tragicomedy.

The film version of Michael Lewis's best-selling book The Big Short brings together Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, some of Hollywood's hottest actors, as outsiders who saw the crisis coming and made hundreds of millions of dollars from complex investments.

The Paramount Pictures film, which is opening in limited release this week in the US, is already vying for industry awards and could produce $75m (€69m) in ticket sales during its run in US cinemas, according to researcher Exhibitor Relations Co.

That would make the picture one of the biggest ever about financial markets.

Nearly a decade after the bursting housing bubble led to the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, there have been a few attempts to bring the crisis to the big screen. The Big Short uses comedy to explain financial-market events that cost millions of jobs and tanked the world's biggest economy. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain appears in one cutaway interview, likening securitisation to unsold fish fillets that end up in stew.

"There really haven't been that many attempts, especially in the comedy vein, it is refreshing to see," said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "I think audiences will respond. It could be a good-size hit for Paramount."

The studio, a division of Viacom, declined to comment.

The Big Short tells the story of investors who believe the US housing market is about to crash and try to profit from it. For the film-makers, the challenge was to explain how opaque markets and complex financial instruments hid excessive speculation in real estate and mortgages.

The picture is directed by Adam McKay, whose credits include the Anchorman films and Talladega Nights. Prior works by Lewis include The Blind Side and Moneyball, which were also made into films.

"It was about the qualities in these people that led them to make the smart bets, that was what interested me," Lewis said in a Bloomberg interview in October.

Porter Collins, formerly an analyst at FrontPoint Partners - one of hedge funds featured in the movie - saw the film at its New York premiere and was surprised at how compelling the tale was. He is played by Hamish Linklater.

"The funny thing is, when they bought the movie rights to the book, all of us said there is no way they will ever make a movie of this," said Collins, who's now a portfolio manager at Seawolf Capital in New York.

"It's a complicated story and our lives just aren't that exciting."

Hollywood has tackled financial-market tales from many angles. Margin Call, the 2011 film starring Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore about the looming collapse of an investment bank, was a well-received drama. Yet it generated less than $20m in ticket sales worldwide, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. The Wall Street documentary Inside Job won an Oscar in 2011.

One of the most successful was Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, which focused on the personal excesses of penny stock trader Jordan Belfort and his associates, including lavish parties, sex and drug use. Oliver Stone's 1987 hit Wall Street, featuring Michael Douglas as the scheming Gordon Gekko, is a cult favourite and one of the top-grossing finance-related movies, according to Rentrak.

Of those focused on the 2008 crisis, The Big Short is the most commercial so far. The Screen Actors Guild has nominated the film for its equivalent of best picture, raising the prospects for an Oscar nomination. On Thursday, the film garnered four Golden Globe nominations, including one for best comedy or musical.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, the founder of Scion Capital Group and an early investor to short sub-prime mortgages. (A short is a bet that the value of a security will decline). Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, based on a real-life fund manager at FrontPoint, a hedge fund that also makes that bet. Ryan Gosling plays the fictional Jared Vennett and serves as narrator, sometimes speaking directly to the audience.

Collins, from Seawolf Capital, describes the film as accurate. He especially liked watching Bourdain explain collateralised debt obligations. Lewis and Adam McKay did a great job making "a dry subject pretty interesting," he said.

The Big Short will open in Irish cinemas in January. Like other films released at that time, it will face tough competition for moviegoers' attention.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in the States on December 18 and is expected to be one of the biggest movies ever.

To Collins, The Big Short gives movie fans an opportunity to understand the financial market events that led to the Great Recession.

"It's not going to win the feel-good movie of the year," he said. "It's a dark subject - the system, and how corrupt it was."

© Bloomberg

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