Reel Business

Lights, camera, startup! From used record shops to ghost exterminators, we bring you the best of small business on the silver screen.

Hollywood has rarely been very appreciative of small businesses. This is somewhat surprising, especially considering that the earliest movie houses were usually nestled securely in downtown business districts, often standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the local pharmacy or grocery. Today, most movie theaters have moved from those humble locations to gigantic multiplexes that contrast sharply with Hollywood’s supposed support of the little guy. The avoidance of small businesses also carries over to the characters themselves: In most films, the occupations of the characters, which may or may not relate to small businesses, are kept deep in the background, and visits to local stores often serve only to frame more personal encounters. That’s not to say that big business is treated any better: Almost without exception, Hollywood portrays big business as the setting for cautionary tales about greed and the nature of fame, a trend perhaps initiated with the best business movie of all time, Orson Wells' Citizen Kane.

As usual, this year's Oscars were empty of inspirational tales about small businesses for the big screen with the iffy exception of Ratatouille, in which the film's protagonists open their own small restaurant on the outskirts of Paris at the film's conclusion. Other movies unmentioned by the Academy dealt with small businesses, but for the most part their portrayals left much to be desired. One, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, with its depiction of a sickening meat pie shop and a cutthroat barber, had no intention of presenting small businesses in a good light; another, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, dealt with issues that many small business owners are familiar with but left many critics and viewers with a feeling substantially less powerful than wonder. There was also the box office hit Bee Movie, in which the scenes involving humans revolved around a small Manhattan flower shop, but we see the owner (Renée Zellweger) at work only in a couple of scenes. (Interestingly, the shop stands in sharp contrast to the bee colony itself, which is depicted as a gigantic corporation.)

Still, when Hollywood turns a loving eye toward the small business owner, it usually does so well, and we've collected a list of the best of those efforts. We've been very lax on our selection process: We focused only on movies in which the main characters are depicted as passionately involved in their own businesses and we only included films with American businesses. Beyond that, anything goes. Despite such wide room for opinion, there is one striking similarity. In virtually all of the movies, the theme of impending tragedy is present: a major chain is threatening to drive the company out of business, business is too slow for profitability, or an error has occurred that threatens the business' very existence. Only one movie (Steel Magnolias) depicts a business that is in no real danger of going out of business, but the business itself is the center of a number of personal tragedies. All of the films, however, focus on the nitty gritty of running of a business and the joys and sorrows that arise from it. In them, small business owners can find a reflection of themselves, see the struggles of others of their kind, and perhaps even learn a little for the future.

Barbershop (2002)

Tim Story's tale of the owner of a Chicago barbershop on the South Side who sells his establishment in a fit of annoyance at being unable to bring in revenue is one of the best small business films of the new century. After selling his shop without informing his employees or customers, Calvin Palmer, Jr. (Ice Cube) discovers that the building will now be used to house a strip club. After the sale, Palmer returns for another day at the shop, only to discover how important his business is to the rest of the community. He resolves to buy it back, but the new owner wants twice the amount that Palmer sold it for. In Barbershop, we are reminded that local barbershops serve not only as places for service or work—they also provide a community forum, an area to meet up with friends, and rewards that far exceed personal financial gain. As in a real neighborhood barbershop, Barbershop's characters jump right into potentially explosive conversation topics, and, in fact, a scene discussing Rosa Parks, O.J. Simpson, and Rodney King was controversial enough that it provoked the real-world anger of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Roger Corman's quirky cult classic, shot in a mere two days with a budget of only $30,000, is now known as one of the funniest movies of all time. In the back streets of Los Angeles, a struggling flower shop, surviving mainly on the purchases of repeat customers, is poised to go out of business. There are only two employees at the store, the bungling Seymour Kleboined (Jonathan Haze) and the beautiful Audrey Fulquard (Jackie Joseph). In the hopes of keeping his job, Kleboined tells the owner about a plant that he claimed to have developed by crossing a butterwort and a Venus flytrap, believing that the plant will make the shop famous. He soon discovers that the plant feeds on blood, however, and resorts to searching for victims to feed it. Little Shop of Horrors is no visual masterpiece—Corman reputedly used bums for extras and constructed shabby sets that could have been torn down in a couple of hours. The script, however, remains extraordinarily funny even today, leaving the movie itself as an example of what a small operation can accomplish with limited funds and a great idea. Also notable is an early performance by a very young Jack Nicholson in one of his first “unhinged” roles that would later come to define his career. The popular 1986 remake starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin was nominated for 2 Oscars.

High Fidelity (2000)

Many of us make mix CDs and collect albums for a hobby; Rob Gordon (John Cusack) does it for a living in High Fidelity, a smart and engaging movie adapted from a London-based novel by British writer Nick Hornby. The center of most of the events in the film is Championship Vinyl, Gordon’s struggling Chicago record store on quirky Milwaukee Avenue. Gordon's two employees, played by Jack Black and Todd Louiso, share their immense knowledge of music with their customers, often to the point of snobbery (especially by Black's character). After a devastating breakup, Gordon decides to revisit each of his "top five" former girlfriends and comes to a realization affecting both his personal life and his business. Along the way, Gordon learns how to incorporate his business into his life more maturely and how to expand. Few movies have so admirably and accurately depicted a business owner pursuing his or her life’s passion as a business. Best of all, unlike those found in many other films, the characters in High Fidelity are very much like the real people we might find in a real business.

Big Night (1996)

Set in the 1950s, Big Night focuses on two brothers from Italy who own a restaurant that they’ve called "Paradise." One brother is a culinary genius who balks at having to produce what his customers think is "traditional" Italian food; the other is a passionate manager determined to be successful in America. Despite their enthusiasm, however, their restaurant is failing miserably. Determined to keep themselves from going out of business, the two brothers ask one of their competitors—who serves his customers the less artistic food that they actually want—for a loan. Instead, however, the owner tells the brothers that he will persuade the legendary jazz musician Louis Prima to visit their restaurant when he visits town, believing that the fame of their guest will bring attention to their business. Unlike any other movie, Big Night captures the problems that entrepreneurs encounter when they try to incorporate artistry into their businesses. Toward the end, we see the wonder of the busy restaurant's customers as they see their magnificent food; unfortunately, we also learn harsher lessons about the nature of customers as well.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

A box office flop when it was released, Frank Capra’s heartwarming tale has long served as one of the most cherished depictions of old small town business life in America. James Stewart plays George Bailey, the owner of a savings and loan company who misplaces $8,000. Perceiving his entire life to be a failure, George considers taking his own life by jumping from a bridge. Instead, he ends up saving the life of his guardian angel, Clarence. Clarence then shows the unbelieving George a dark vision of what his hometown would be like if he had never existed. Aside from the obvious parallels to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Capra’s film is notable for the attention it gives to the sacrifices that many small businesses often make in order to give back to both their families and their communities and the generosity of their communities toward them in return.

Empire Records (1995)

At its release, Empire Records received terrible reviews. As Roger Ebert put it, “Empire Records is one of those stores you only find in the movies, where customers can be put on hold while the employees stage a mock funeral for the troubled Debra, followed by a group therapy session.” Since then, however, it has remained popular due to a devoted following, primarily composed of teens,of the late 1990s. Empire Records is a small music store located in the central business district of a small town in Delaware. The employees of the company view each other as members of a small family, and when mega-chain Music Town offers to buy Empire Records from its owner, the employees band together to save the store for the community. While Empire Records has much to say about the dedication of employees to a small company, it’s difficult to say how much small business owners could learn from it.

You've Got Mail! (1998)

Based on 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail centers on Kathleen Kelley (Meg Ryan), a children’s bookstore owner who unwittingly holds conversations online with Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), the owner of a major bookstore chain that’s opening a new location not far from Kelly’s shop. Following an awkward encounter in which Fox brings his young aunt and brother into Kelly’s shop for storytime, the two characters, not knowing each other’s online identity, develop a dislike of each other that results in Kelly’s boycott of Fox Books. Interestingly, 10 years later, it’s quite startling at times how dated many of the uses of the Internet depicted in the movie have become. For one, spam e-mail would make announcements of “You’ve Got Mail” so common that today’s Kathleen Kelley or Joe Fox would have thrown one of their books through their monitors in exasperation.

Steel Magnolias (1989)

The setting of the story is essentially the same as in Barbershop—a small town beauty salon in which locals gather to share local gossip. This time, however, the regulars are women and the action is set in a small town in Louisiana. Truvy (Dolly Parton), the owner, watches the lives of all the women who come to her shop over the course of three years. At the forefront is the tale of Shelby (Julia Roberts), who decides to have a baby despite having Type 1 diabetes. Despite an excessive reliance on one-liners, Steel Magnolias is an excellent glimpse into the community that forms around a beauty salon, especially since the action never really leaves the interior of the shop.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Work in a niche market? Then you’ll find much to learn from Ghostbusters. After three professors are kicked out of their prestigious posts at New York City’s Columbia University, they begin a business for the investigation and capture of paranormal creatures, specifically, ghosts. Like most small businesses, their operation begins with extremely limited funds—they buy a 1959 Cadillac hearse for their vehicle and use a former fire station as their base of operations. After running some advertisements on television with little success, their business takes off after they capture a ghost at the Sedgwick Hotel. After that, their business starts to boom. Surprisingly, there’s much here that small businesses can relate to: limited funds, low customer traffic, and growing pains. In the sequel, the writers carry it a step further and depict the Ghostbusters attempting to revive their business after it was closed down in the wake of lawsuits following their antics in the first film.

10 More Biz Flicks Worth Watching

  1. Risky Business – Need we say more?

  2. Forrest Gump – Choosing the right partner can mean everything.

  3. Chocolat – Patience is a virtue.

  4. Used Cars – Watch out for devious car salesmen.

  5. Fried Green Tomatoes – Everything tastes better fried.

  6. Citizen Kane – Remember business ethics.

  7. Psycho – Learn how not to run a motel.

  8. Mr. Deeds – So that’s where Hallmark gets their ideas.

  9. Trading Places – Tests the nature vs. nurture theory.

  10. Baby Boom - Ah, the struggle to balance work and life.

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Reader Comments

Friday, May 30, 2008 at 9:51 AM
B. Calloway says:
Good read, and kudos for playing up the original LSOH.

Citizen Kane? If there has ever been a movie that does not belong on a small business movie list, that's it.

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