Skip to content
A Great Year for Free Market Capitalism in Film
Go to my account

A Great Year for Free Market Capitalism in Film

Five movies that captured the thrill and agony of markets, dynamism, risk, and competition.

Ben Affleck in 'Air.' (Image via Amazon Studios)

One of the most common and annoying movie tropes is the portrayal of business as evil, boring, foolish, or sometimes all three. Good guy employees are forced or brainwashed into working at these hellholes, and their bosses are profit-obsessed idiots, scumbags, or even monsters hellbent—for some unknown reason—on destroying the planet (and, bizarrely, their customer base). 

Of course, real Business Bad Guys do exist, and not everyone loves his job. But few of us truly fit Hollywood’s standard corporate stereotype. Instead, the real world is full of stories about Good Guys winning at business, or of Bad Guys losing not because of some superhero or dogged government investigator but because of good ol’ free market competition. Yet these stories are rarely told—until, it seems, this past year.

Indeed, 2023 featured not one of these stories but five of them, collectively called “produpics” (because they’re about, you guessed it, famous products) but really about the many people, good and bad, behind the items at issue. And unlike most of the free-market fanfic that does get made (ahem), they actually turned out pretty great. 

OK, fine, not all of them are great, but several are, and the rest are both watchable and educational. And who can ask for anything more than that in a movie?

(Yes, I am a hit at parties. Why do you ask?)

‘Air’

Anyway, the best film of the bunch, both cinematically and educationally, is undoubtedly Air. The film is based on the 1984 longshot bid by one man, Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), to sign rookie basketball player Michael Jordan to a shoe contract—a move that nobody (not even Jordan or Nike management) thought Vaccaro could pull off because the athlete was a top draft pick and Nike’s basketball shoe division stunk. Vaccaro, of course, does pull it off by risking not only his own job and the division’s entire budget, but perhaps also the positions of Nike Marketing VP Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) and co-founder and CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), who reluctantly bet on Vaccaro’s hunch that Jordan would sign and was worth the huge gamble. We all know today that our heroes’ plan was indeed worth the risk, but their journey to that destination is why we watch. And it’s a very entertaining ride, indeed.

Along the way Air teaches tons of great lessons beyond the obvious one about taking risks and reaping rewards. Here are my two favorites:

Outsourcing Benefits. Everyone at Nike has a job—marketing, scouting, design, sales, management, administrative, etc.—that depends on shoes manufactured abroad via the “factoryless goods producer” model that we discussed in a recent column. In arguably the movie’s worst scene, Strasser laments this model, even though it greatly benefits Nike customers, the company, a building full of his co-workers, and Strasser himself (both financially and personally).  The movie even shows (albeit implicitly) how this business model helps, contra the “race to the bottom” myth, the countries where said manufacturing occurs: Strasser notes that the shoes were made in Korea and Taiwan, which have used trade to move so far up the economic ladder that they’re actually too rich to make Nikes today.

Mutually Beneficial Commerce. Too often, movies present commercial transactions as zero-sum deals, with winners and losers (and usually ill-gotten gains), or as the product of some sort of benevolent charity maneuver. But in one of the the movie’s best scenes, His Airness’ mom Deloris (Viola Davis) explains to Vaccaro the selfish reasons Nike will accept her unprecedented demand that they give her son a share of Air Jordan sales:

I agree this business is unfair. It’s unfair to my son. It’s unfair to people like you. But sometimes a person comes along who is not only so extraordinary that they might force those reluctant to part with some of that wealth to do so—not out of charity—out of greed, because he is so very special. Even more rarely, that person demands to be treated according to their worth because they understand what they are worth.

Here she’s effectively paraphrasing Adam Smith, who famously explained that, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” Later on Phil Knight confirms Jordan’s instinct when he plays down a possible Nike board revolt (over the unprecedented deal) by telling Vaccaro, “If [Jordan] is who you think he is, he’ll be worth every penny.” They were right about the win-win nature of the deal: By 2021, the Jordan brand would make Nike $4 billion that year.

There are plenty more lessons like this in the movie, such as the nerdy shoe designer who obsesses over a prototype that will break design, technology, and NBA standards, or the postscript about Knight donating billions to charity. But let’s move on.

‘Tetris’

The hero in Tetris follows a similar arc as Damon’s Vaccaro in risking his career, and even life, on a longshot product he’s convinced will bring huge commercial and financial success. Here, it’s Henk Rogers of Bullet-Proof Software (Taron Egerton) who becomes obsessed with the video game Tetris, which Soviet programmer Alexey Pajitnov created in his spare time while employed at the state-owned ELORG. The remainder of the movie follows Rogers’ wild efforts to secure the handheld video game licensing rights for Japan’s Nintendo—a race against both another Western video game company and several corrupt Soviet government officials (including some at the notorious KGB).  

The risk-it-all true story is entertaining and, for dorks who love intellectual property law (and who doesn’t?), the licensing race is a dream plot. Yet Tetris shines brightest in two other ways: First, it implicitly demonstrates a big and often-ignored part of the globalization story—ideas—and how global intellectual property rules govern them (for better or worse). Through Rogers and a bunch of legal wrangling, Nintendo bought an effective global monopoly on selling a handheld device (the Gameboy) with a few special lines of computer code—and the company made an absolute fortune by doing so. 

Second, we get a great look at the ugly side of communism and the Soviet state’s control of the Russian economy. Pajitnov, for example, has no ownership of or control over his own hobbyist creation. Instead, ELORG (and, by extension, the Soviet state) owns the game and negotiates its licensing, the proceeds of which were supposed to go to the government. But the movie shows how things really worked under Soviet communism: corrupt government officials and KGB agents trying to sell the game to enrich themselves (not the government and certainly not the Russian people) and using intimidation and violence to get their way.  (In a separate interview, Pajitnov says he “granted” those rights to ELORG, but … c’mon, we know what’s going on here too.)  

Fortunately, the kleptocrats fail, Rogers escapes the USSR with Tetris, and the Soviet Union eventually collapses. (“A woman says that Estonia is rebelling against the Soviet Union, and that change is coming,” the movie hints.) At the end, Rogers flies Pajitnov and his family to the United States, and an epilogue explains that they started The Tetris Company (and that Pajitinov finally got paid). 

Communism falling and the little guy winning freedom and much-deserved wealth? Now that’s a heartwarming ending if there ever was one.

‘Flamin’ Hot’

Perhaps the worst of the five films—from a pure entertainment (and historical accuracy) perspective—is Flamin’ Hot, which documents immigrant janitor Richard Montañez’s rise through the ranks of Frito Lay while creating a new, spicy Cheetos flavor that caters to the United States’ growing and lucrative Latino demographic. The film handles many of the same risk and innovation themes as the previous two movies, but it garners the coveted Capitolism Thumbs Up for its look at two things we’ve covered here in depth. First, it shows the dynamism, creativity, and economic mobility of the U.S. food industry and the people who work therein. Second, we see the big role that immigration plays in benefiting American palates, cultures, fortunes, and the U.S. economy overall. The movie itself is forgettable, but those messages certainly aren’t.

‘BlackBerry’

Capitalism isn’t just success stories, of course, and that’s where the two other movies on my 2023 list come in. The better of the two is BlackBerry, which follows the iconic device’s creators—Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Doug Fregin (Matt Johnson, who also co-wrote and directed the film)—from their earliest days at their tiny Canadian company Research in Motion, to their uber-successful partnership with sketchy investor Jim Balsillie (the weirdly bald Glenn Howerton), and then finally to the company’s infamous collapse in the early 2010s. Along with some great acting and good humor, we get to see the highs of entrepreneurship, the hubris that often accompanies sustained business success, and the unexpected (yet ever-present) threat of new competition and good ol’ creative destruction. The film also captures the ephemeral nature of a supposed “monopoly,” especially in tech, and the doom that accompanies a market-leader’s failure to adapt in the face of that competition. It’s a fun, well-executed ride.

The movie’s only real downside is that it oddly attributes RIM’s downfall to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission instead of the free market and, in particular, fierce new competition from the iPhone and Android smartphones. Those products challenge the BlackBerry not just in terms of hardware (touchscreen, cameras, etc.) but also software, security, and the entire app ecosystems that they generated (and that we today take for granted). But this threat is barely mentioned in the film’s ending sequences. That’s a real shame, because—as dozens of stories have documented—the BlackBerry story is a classic case of a staggering entrepreneurial success being closely followed by the tragedy that so often befalls cocky, lazy incumbents in a lightly regulated market. (Signed, a former Crackberry addict who for years dreamt of a RIM device with a physical keyboard and Android operating system. Sigh.)

‘The Beanie Bubble’

Speaking of tragedies, our final movie is The Beanie Bubble, which wastes fun performances by Zach Galifianakis, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Snook, and newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan, in sorta-documenting the rise of toymaker Ty Inc. and the Beanie Baby craze of the 1990s. During that period, Ty’s little plush toys went from “cute and cheap” to “a lucrative investment” to “insanely priced in the secondary market,” thus causing total mayhem at toy stores, McDonald’s restaurants (with whom they partnered), and even the middle of the interstate (when a Ty truck crashed, spilling Beanies everywhere). At one point in the late 1990s, “investment grade” (lol) beanies sold for thousands of dollars, and “magazines such as Mary Beth’s Bean Bag World — which at its peak sold over 650,000 copies a month on newsstands — helped keep the market orderly by giving buyers and sellers a reference point for negotiations.”

And then, of course, the Great Beanie Bubble burst. As prices started dropping, nervous beanie owners flooded the market with their collections, pushing prices down even more and causing a panic among collectors and investors desperate to recoup the life savings they insanely spent on a storage closet full of little stuffed toys. 

Today, the beanie bubble is widely considered, along with Tulipmania and a few others, to rank among the biggest and most famous speculative collapses in economic history—and certainly the most ridiculous in retrospect. As the Financial Times documented a few years ago, the bubble teaches all sorts of economic lessons about tech-fueled speculation (here it was a new thing called “eBay”), forced scarcity (by Ty Inc.), informational asymmetries (only Ty knew how many of each beanie was made and when it would be discontinued), self-interested “experts” and middlemen (like those magazine publishers) fueling and getting rich off the frenzy, and the always-lurking gravity of the free market.

Unfortunately, The Beanie Bubble treats this real-world drama as mainly background noise for a trite and boring story about a comically weird and greedy corporate CEO (Galifianakis, as Ty Warner) and the three empowered women with whom he works and/or lives. It’s fine as such stories go (I guess), but the movie would’ve been much better with the actual bubble as its focus.

Fortunately, we can go watch Air, Tetris, or BlackBerry instead. And, hopefully, Hollywood has more free market stories to come in 2024.

Capitolism will run a day later next week. Expect it in your inbox on Thursday.

Charts of the Week

The (Abridged) Links

Scott Lincicome is the author of Capitolism, vice president of general economics and trade at the Cato Institute, and a visiting lecturer at Duke University Law School.