Here at Entrepreneur.com, we love films almost as much as we love business. In honor of the Academy Awards in 2006, we plumbed the depths of film history to come up with our picks for the top entrepreneurs in the movies--and our list even inspired an entrepreneurial film festival at Chapman University in Orange, California. This year, we've added three more films to the list because entrepreneurship continues to be a fascinating subject for the film industry.
Our delightful dozen (plus one honorable mention) covers both small-business owners and corporate moguls, but each entrepreneur shares one thing in common: They have a business vision that consumes them and they act upon it.
Altogether, the films listed here were nominated for 46 Oscars and (so far) won 12. Others hit it big at the Golden Globes and at Sundance. And while this is a prestigious group, we admit, what we're most inspired by are the film's portrayals of the struggles, the ambition, the hardships and the joys of entrepreneurship. Whether rendered dramatically or as a comedy, each film offers insight that any entrepreneur--or entrepreneurial wannabe looking for an inside view--can appreciate.
Here then, in order of release date, are our favorite entrepreneurs in the movies.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Charles Foster Kane, publishing magnate
It's impossible to create a list of famous screen entrepreneurs without mentioning Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles). Rumored to be based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, Welles' masterpiece of filmmaking is often cited as one of the top films of all time. Citizen Kane is probably best known for its unorthodox storytelling, its visual ingenuity and, of course, the whispered 'Rosebud.' But it's also the story of a man who raised himself up by his bootstraps to become a legend. Kane began his entrepreneurial career by taking control of a small-town newspaper his father figure owns. From there, he built a media empire, eventually running for government office--an unfortunate choice as his opponent ruined him by exposing a personal scandal.
Obviously, we're not going to recommend Kane's business techniques--this is a story to learn from, not emulate. Because while Kane may have created an empire, it's one he built through shady means--the use of yellow journalism--and then toppled with an overwhelming Machiavellian personality that pushed everyone away from him.
Ghost Busters (1984)
Dr. Peter Venkman, Dr. Raymond Stantz and Dr. Egon Spengler, supernatural pest control
The path from academia to entrepreneurship is a well-trod one, which is how the three main characters of Ghost Busters end up, well, busting ghosts. After losing their credibility in the academic world, three professors--one who is a bonafide scientist (Harold Ramis), another who is a supernatural historian (Dan Akroyd), and one who relies mostly on charm and some business acumen (Bill Murray)--start a business as ghost eradicators. Although business is slow at first, the trio is soon called in to bust spirits in a building that also happens to be a big ol' portal of evil. Their business booms, until an EPA agent shuts them down and arrests them due to excess ghosts on their 'containment grid.' The ghosts are released into New York City and the mayor soon realizes the ghost busters are the only people who can save the city from the ravages of the ghosts.
Any business owner can relate to the highs and lows that befall the ghost busters--from no customers to overnight success to an unforeseen shut-down. And while you may not be dealing with ectoplasm, evil spirits and proton packs, you can still be inspired by the business roller coaster the ghost busters ride.
Baby Boom (1987)
J.C. Wiatt, baby food manufacturer
Yes, Baby Boom is an '80s yuppie fantasy, but the struggles and successes of its main character still resonate today. It's not so outlandish to hear of a high-powered executive who quits their job, moves to a small town and starts a business.
J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton), an uber ambitious executive in New York City, inherits a baby when a distant relative dies but soon finds her Manhattan lifestyle a bad fit for motherhood. After getting fired from her job, she moves to a house in the country, complete with apple orchard. Using the resources at hand--bushels and bushels of apples--J.C. begins making an all-natural applesauce for the baby, a venture which quickly turns into a money-making enterprise. As her executive, type-A personality kicks in, she quickly grows her baby food business into a multimillion-dollar concern. Now she's back to square one: How will she manage to balance baby and business? J.C.'s circumstances may be a bit unrealistic (how exactly did she finance the new home and business?), but her work/life balance struggle is not.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Preston Tucker, car manufacturer
Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) was a visionary entrepreneur who had a dream to build a safer car, a dream that was eventually destroyed by the auto industry and its loyal friends in the federal government. To be fair, some historians paint Tucker as a bit of a charlatan, but in this case, since we're film fans and not historians, we're going with Francis Ford Coppola's portrait of the man in Tucker: The Man and His Dream.
Having made a fortune selling a uniquely designed gun turret during World War II, Tucker sets his sights on his true love: the auto. His innovative design focuses on such safety features as seat belts, a padded dash and a third headlight. He gathers a strong group of supporters and scrambles to raise the money to build the car despite the odds against him. But the Detroit auto industry thinks Tucker's car will make Americans believe other cars are unsafe. They manage to sic the SEC on him for his questionable fundraising efforts and though he wins his court battle, he loses his fortune, his reputation and what could have been an auto empire.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump and Dan Taylor, shrimp company
Forrest Gump has the unique honor of being the only non-biographical movie on this list to have spawned a real-world business--there are, in fact, 15 Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurants spread across the United States. In the film, while Forrest (Tom Hanks) is fighting in the Vietnam War, his friend and comrade Bubba Gump (Mykelti Williamson) passes time by telling Forest that his ultimate dream is to own a shrimp business. Although Bubba is killed in the war, Forrest never forgets Bubba's dream. After he becomes a ping-pong champ and earns $25,000 from a product endorsement, he buys a shrimp boat and launches a business with another friend from the war, Lt. Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise).
As with the entire film, the arc of the business relies on a lot of serendipity but also on the power of friendship. Forrest calls on Dan to help him get started and, in doing so, helps pull Dan out of a deep depression. The company begins poorly, but when all the other local boats are destroyed in a hurricane, the Bubba Gump company takes off. Dan later invests the profits into Apple, making the partners 'godzillionaires.' Forrest leaves the business but not before giving Bubba's mother a small fortune and donating money to a hospital. The success of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company just goes to show you that you should never forget the people who helped you out and that the right partnership can affect not only your bottom line but your life. 142 minutes. PG-13.
High Fidelity (2000)
Rob Gordon, used record store owner
Rob Gordon (John Cusack) is the everyman's entrepreneur: He turned his passion (music) into a business with a secondhand record store, Championship Vinyl. His employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black) showed up for three-day-a-week shifts and just never left because they love the business as much as Rob does. In their knowledge and passion for the business, they're perfect employees. However, their customer service skills leave something to be desired; Barry, in particular, enjoys berating customers for their bad taste in music.
But the focus of the film is Rob's inability to grow up, especially in the love department: When his most recent girlfriend dumps him, it's partially in response to what she sees as his immature obsession with music, which includes his record store. Hey, we resent that! While we admit Rob could probably stand some help in the marketing--and love--departments, we applaud his entrepreneurial efforts and his plan to extend his business with a record label.
Vianne Rocher, chocolatier
Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter breeze into a buttoned-up French town in 1960 and open up a gourmet--and sensually suspect--chocolate shop. As she attracts the town's outcasts, she also scandalizes the mayor by not only bringing pleasure to her customers but also by her lack of husband, her disinclination to attend church and her gall to sell chocolate during Lent.
Vianne is the perfect small-town shop proprietor. Her customers become family in her homey and quaint chocolaterie, and her slightly salacious and completely delicious products create the type of fans any business would want. But most important, her backbone is strong in her fight against the unbending and unfair mayor. For anyone who's found their success hampered by local bureaucracy and interfering busy-bodies, this is the film for you. 121 minutes.
Calvin Palmer, barbershop owner
Calvin (Ice Cube) is an accidental entrepreneur. His father barely scraped by for 40 years running a barbershop, and now Calvin's inherited the store and all its headaches. Calvin, however, has bigger dreams and unloads his burden by selling the shop to a loan shark for $20,000. After announcing the sale, Calvin begins to realize how much the shop means to his employees, his customers, the community and, ultimately, himself. Now he has to come up with $40,000 (of course the loan shark's doubled the selling price) to buy back his store--and his family's legacy.
Though Barbershop focuses more on the back-and-forth of the shop's inhabitants, it's a great look at how a business can mean so much more than the income it generates for the entrepreneur. 102 minutes.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
Estela Garcia, fashion designer and manufacturer
The real star of this film is actually Ana Garcia (America Ferrera), an 18-year-old girl torn between the pull of her immigrant family and her dreams of moving to New York City to attend college. To appease her mother for the short-term, she agrees to spend the summer working alongside her mother and sister Estela in Estela's (Ingrid Oliu) garment factory.
Like most entrepreneurs, Estela is constantly worried about the bottom line, while trying to be fair to her employees. The factory is hot and sweaty in the Los Angeles summer, but Estela can't turn on the air conditioning because the dust would ruin the gowns they manufacture. When Ana accompanies Estela to one her buyers' offices at a high-end boutique in Beverly Hills, she learns firsthand how much Estela's dresses are being marked up, how terribly unfair a small business can be treated by its customers and how hard it can be to compete. The struggles here are real, but it's not all bad news: The respect and humor that the factory workers show each other is inspiring.
The Aviator (2004)
Howard Hughes, serial entrepreneur
At 17, Howard Hughes was handed the keys to his father's tool company after the old man died. But it's where he followed his dreams later that made him a legend and ultimate serial entrepreneur. As portrayed in The Aviator, Hughes (Leonard DiCaprio) put the tool company in the charge of Noah Dietrich (John C.Reilly) while he pursued Hollywood dreams, becoming a director, producer and eventual head of RKO Pictures in the late '40s. At the same time, Hughes' interest in aviation took flight; he founded Hughes Aircraft and later became a majority shareholder in TWA.
While Hughes had a relatively easy entry into the entrepreneurial life via his father's company and money, what was admirable was his fascination with and eventual knowledge of the aviation industry. He was virtually self-taught, yet he broke aviation records, designed new technology and planes, including the Spruce Goose, and even put his own life at stake when testing new aircraft. Much is made of Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder and descent into madness in The Aviator, but it's Hughes' entrepreneurial accomplishments we'd rather concentrate on.
Kinky Boots (2005)
Charlie Price, shoe manufacturer
This under-the-radar gem is one of the most small-business-oriented films we've ever seen. Like Calvin in Barbershop, Charlie (Joel Edgerton) is drawn back to the small town of his childhood after inheriting his father's shoe manufacturing business. He soon learns that Price & Sons Shoes is failing miserably due to cheap foreign labor, and Charlie's ready to shut down, even if it means his father's loyal employees will lose their jobs.
Charlie then meets drag-queen Lola (Golden Globe-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor), who informs Charlie that finding attractive footwear is a nightmare for transvestites. So with the help of this unlikely consultant, Charlie discovers a unique solution to his business woes.
Of course, Charlie faces many more challenges: Explaining his new "kinky" mission to his very surprised employees, helping Lola find acceptance in the small town, determining whether he really wants to run the family business, and dealing with his fiancée who loves their life back in London. Based on the true story of an English shoe company, Kinky Boots is a heartfelt exploration of what can befall a family business when the inheritor isn't sure they want it, as well as the competitive difficulties of a small manufacturer.
Various cars, various service businesses and stores
Not sure how an animated flick about race cars ties into entrepreneurship? Think about the residents of the small town of Radiator Springs, where hotshot Lightning McQueen ends up stranded. You've got Sally, a motel owner; Mater, a tow truck who runs the impound lot; Lizzie, a Ford Model T who owns a memorabilia shop; Luigi and Guido, tire shop owners; Patrice, a VW van and organic fuel provider; Sarge, the army surplus store owner; and Ramon, the low-rider with a custom body and paint shop. Radiator Springs is small-town America, right down to the local businesses that give the town its character.
There's one big problem in Radiator Springs that's familiar to many small towns that sprouted up next to highways--the new freeway that diverts all the traffic and potential customers away from Radiator Springs. Recent transplant Sally believes the town can be revived, and it's her chutzpah along with Lightning's celebrity that inspires the residents to rally together to rebuild their town.
This reminds us of so many revitalized downtown areas across the country. As areas got older, customers drifted to newer, shinier shopping centers. But in those downtrodden downtowns, local officials joined forces with business owners to revamp, revitalize and renew. The Oscar-nominated film Cars is not just about cars going fast; it's also a celebration of businesses that have banded together to find new avenues of success.
Honorable Mention: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Chris Gardner, stock brokerage firm owner
While this Will Smith star-vehicle is the story of successful entrepreneur Chris Gardner, the film only concentrates on one year of Gardner's life. When he was in his twenties, Gardner gave up his job as a salesperson, and was homeless and caring for a young son as he built a new career as a stock broker.
The film ends before Gardner began his entrepreneurial career. In 1987, Gardner took another big chance and started his own stock brokerage firm with just $10,000 at the dining room table in his apartment. Today, he's a millionaire, speaker, author and philanthropist. So while The Pursuit of Happyness doesn't explore exactly how Gardner built his entrepreneurial empire, it does offer insight into the man himself, a man who experienced struggles few of us will ever know in his pursuit of a better future.