'Billions' Co-Creator Reveals Wall Street's Love-Hate Obsession With Hollywood (Guest Column)
Andrew Ross Sorkin on why today's Gordon Gekkos both delight and complain about how they're portrayed onscreen (even as they look down on the entertainment business).
This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
That's based on me, right? That's the question I get at least several times a week from financiers on Wall Street who have convinced themselves they're the inspiration for some part of Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund manager at the center of Billions, the Showtime drama I co-created with showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien. But the question always seems loaded.
On one level, the financiers appear desperate to believe, at least theoretically, that they are the model for Bobby. (Yes, the narcissism is staggering.) Yet on another level, there also is a sense of ambivalence because Bobby, on occasion, does things that are — how to put it politely? — morally questionable.
The duality of the financiers' emotions about being portrayed onscreen — enamored with the glamour of it yet anxious about the ethical questions raised about the extremes of capitalism — is a microcosm for the way Wall Street often feels about Hollywood.
The business world has had a lot of entertainment choices recently to test its bipolar feelings: The Big Short, ABC's Madoff, The Wolf of Wall Street and Margin Call among them. (And, of course, Billions and Too Big to Fail, my book that HBO made into a film.) And there is about to be more: the forthcoming Money Monster film starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, and Equity, a film that follows a banker played by Anna Gunn.
A little more than five years ago, before the opening of the Wall Street sequel Money Never Sleeps, director Oliver Stone and I went for lunch at the Four Seasons in the Grill Room. I was writing a column about his film for The New York Times. Stone surveyed the restaurant filled with boldface names from the business pages. "You know, half the people in this place could be prosecuted," he exclaimed. That, in a sentence — which became the lead of my column — is probably the conventional view of Wall Street from the entertainment industry. (I'm probably overgeneralizing.)
“Whatever bankers think of Hollywood may be less relevant than what Hollywood thinks of them,” writes Sorkin.
It also explains a lot about Wall Street's frustration with the popular narrative of films that, as Bernie Sanders has repeatedly said, "Fraud is the business model of Wall Street." When the brilliantly written Big Short was released late last year, Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the SEC, quickly praised this headline from The Wall Street Journal: "Big Short, Big Hooey." Another Journal writer argued, "By laying the bulk of the blame on Wall Street venality, it brushes off less nefarious but more compelling reasons why so many on and off Wall Street didn't see it coming." And yet many bankers loved the film; mostly they loved the idea of seeing what they do for a living smartly put on the big screen.
Of course, characters like Gordon Gekko remain heroes, embodying a sense of mission and drive — and an opulent lifestyle — that defines the ethos of Wall Street, even post-financial crisis. Stone, of course, did not intend for Gekko to be revered.
Nonetheless, the financial industry, Stone told me, not only thinks Hollywood is a bunch of "liberals" and "communists," but perhaps itself too slick, engaging in "Hollywood accounting" that would make the chicanery on Wall Street seem PG-rated. (On the political front, perhaps surprising to some, many of Wall Street's most prominent executives, including Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, are longtime Democrats.)
Which makes it all the more curious why Wall Street has been so quick to finance even the riskiest parts of the entertainment industry. While traditional banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan have pulled back from Hollywood in recent years, many hedge funds, supposedly the "smart money," have often filled the gap — and sometimes gotten burned. Witness Paul Singer of Elliott Management's ill-fated investment in Relativity Media.
In the end, whatever bankers think of Hollywood may be less relevant than what Hollywood thinks of them. The cultural implications of the way business is often portrayed in pop culture is apparently so significant, it inspired a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law to write an entire academic paper about it. The professor set out to diagnose why "American films have long presented a negative view of business." His provocative conclusion? "It is not business that filmmakers dislike, but rather the control of firms by profit-maximizing capitalists." He suggests filmmakers resent studios owning their art. (I don't subscribe to his theory.)
Whatever the case, Wall Street has reason to overlook its misgivings: Ultimately, invitations to red-carpet premieres and dinners with celebrities quickly win over people who spend most of their day staring at spreadsheets. "It's glamorous, man," says William Cohan, a former banker turned author. "They love being portrayed in a larger-than-life way, but they hate being portrayed as the villains." Cohan, who is also a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, says he gets an "astounding" number of calls from hedge fund managers around the time of the magazine's Oscar party: "They all want an invitation."
Andrew Ross Sorkin is a financial columnist for The New York Times, co-anchor of CNBC's Squawk Box and co-creator of Showtime's Billions.