Hollywood gets family business – with all its blood and gore

Hollywood has made some good films about family businesses  Picture: © Thomas Wolf
Hollywood has made some good films about family businesses  Picture: © Thomas Wolf

The film industry, despite being itself a global business worth trillions of dollars, is often said to not get the world of business in the movies it makes. Hollywood films often portray business, particularly big business, as villainous (Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner), greedy (Wall Street), and ruthless (Glengarry Glen Ross). Rarely does it make a film about the virtuous side of business.

But, when it comes to portraying family businesses, maybe Hollywood isn’t too far off the mark. Here’s why. All family businesses want to achieve a level of harmony with the family members involved and everyone else as well, and, of course, many do. But some don’t – and what goes on behind the scenes of a family business is often much more fractious and nastier than the public imagine. Maybe it’s good that Hollywood shows the darker side from time to time, because it exists in real life.

Take just a few family business stories that made the headlines this week in the UK to prove the point. One involved the supposed suicide of Angad Paul, the son of Swraj Paul, better known as Lord Paul, who founded the engineering/steel group Caparo, which made him and his family one of the wealthiest in the UK.  Angad had been CEO of Caparo.

Another story involving the murder of David West, the owner of a successful nightclub business in London, by his son, also called David. Apparently, an argument had broken out between the two over the control of the business.

Anyway, neither case is particularly edifying – they probably aren’t going to be used as case studies of what to avoid in running family businesses. But conflict, maybe not often to the extreme of the above two examples, exists, and it’s foolish to think otherwise.

So, when Hollywood makes a film like There Will Be Blood, which, among its various plots, involves the emotional and business relationship between a father, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and his adopted son, it’s portraying the world of family businesses with some degree of accuracy.

That relationship between two generations in a family business is also a theme in the 2012 film Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere. A subplot involves the relationship between a corrupted father and his honest daughter in the setting of a family-owned financial business.

And even when Hollywood makes a comedy like Trading Places, which stars Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd, it’s also spot on. Released in the early 1980s, the film involves a commodities firm called Duke & Duke controlled by two brothers, who, though a bet on whether its nurture or nature that determines success, swap the roles of their non-family CEO with that of a homeless tramp and vice versa.

Despite being one of the most amusing films of the 1980s, the film also provides a useful parable on the relationship between a non-family manager and the family owners. For that reason it should be required viewing for those who work in a family business.

Hollywood may sometimes concentrate too much on the dark side of business, but when it comes to the dark side, maybe this is where it gets family businesses right – at least some of the time.

So, Family Capital’s advice is to watch the films mentioned above if you want learn a thing or two about family businesses.


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