I love watching movies—like a lot, movies of every genre, style and era. And as a lifelong entrepreneur, I can’t help but watch them through an entrepreneur’s eyes. Whether it’s a comic book blockbuster or Asif Kapadia documentary (watch Senna if you haven’t already), I pick up on themes of team building, creativity and grit. I discern plot points that involve business plans, product launches, scaling strategies. I’m basically the kid in The Sixth Sense but instead of dead people I see market metaphors.
Of course plenty of movies are legitimately about business and capital, like Wall Street, The Founder and Trading Places to name a few greats (the latter climaxes with a genuinely astute take on commodities trading btw). But then there are movies that make more subtle, maybe even unintentional intimations—movies that you wouldn’t say are about entrepreneurship but are definitely about entrepreneurship. To me this category tells us that the business world is really just, you know, the world. The parallels are so deep that these two things are actually one. That idea resonates with me, and I think it will with fellow founders too.
So which movies am I talking about? Three in particular come to mind, starting with the most unexpected of them all, which is Ghostbusters.
Ghostbusters, aka the Bootstrapping Saviors
You heard me! Behind the supernatural scares, perfect Murray-Ackroyd comedic timing and Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Ghostbusters is one of the greatest startup stories ever told. Nobody talks about it this way but the signifiers are there: determining market availability, building a team, seeking funding, developing MVP, launching a product, underdog success. Starting at the very beginning.
The seed of Ghostbusters LLC is planted when Columbia University PhDs Venkman, Stanz and Spengler—Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, respectively—lose their funding. (We’ve all been there.) With their regular job situation gone, the three research scientists are forced into entrepreneurship. Luckily, the market is hot for catching ghosts and, thanks to their proprietary technology already in development, these guys are New York City’s sole operators.
Still, they need money to acquire a place of business, staff and additional equipment. Rather than seeking venture capital, they secure funding via a bank loan, for which Stanz mortgages his parents’ home. Given their scant first-round funding, they can only afford an abandoned firehouse for an office and a vintage hearse for transportation.
Announcing their line of business as “exterminators,” the trio beta tests their service by catching their first ghost in the ballroom of the Sedgewick Hotel. They wreck the ballroom in the process, for which the hotel manager threatens to withhold payment. When the trio says they’ll put the ghost back, the manager is very willing to pay for removal regardless of cost—an intensity of customer demand that denotes excellent product-market fit. Clearly these scientists-turned-bootstrappers have found a niche. The Ghostbusters are born.
Business booms because of growing demand. The Ghostbusters’ proprietary tech proves relatively safe and garners significant media attention. They spend their initial revenue on new hires and a TV ad buy, develop a catchy slogan and attract some press. After successful regulatory negotiations with city officials, the founders, supported by their gifted new hire, confront their first serious competitor.
Gozer the Gozerian is an ancient malevolent entity in an ‘80s new-wave hairdo, and it is intent on not only edging into the Ghostbusters’ territory but annihilating it completely. Only through teamwork—the group’s mutual trust in its collective scientific acumen and willingness to risk their lives to get the job done—not to mention the combined power of four unlicensed nuclear accelerators are the Ghostbusters able to rebuff Gozer’s hostile takeover. At the close of the film, with a committed customer base of every single living being in a major metropolitan market, the Ghostbusters’ growth projections are strong.
But when it comes to serving a large market, nothing beats saving the entire human race. A job that size requires a lot of coordination between private and public sectors and international agencies. It also requires time travel, at least in the case of Interstellar, a movie that elevates the theme of building a team to a global—and existential—level.
Interstellar’s Mission-Driven Ambition
As a director, Christopher Nolan seems to aspire to narrative innovation, telling stories in ways that nobody else can. Interstellar is his most ambitious film: Its theoretical-scientific foundation is so advanced that it was accompanied by a book-length explainer written by a physicist friend of Carl Sagan. It also might be the most romantic, a story of team-building and cross-sector collaboration that ultimately turns on the eternal power of love at a cosmic scale. Or put another way, it reinforces the need for, and power of, a compelling mission, one powerful enough to drive you to the edge of the galaxy and back.
The relationship between Matthew McCanaughey’s character Cooper and his daughter Murph provides Interstellar’s emotional heart. But to my entrepreneurial mind, the film’s most interesting relationship is between man and technology. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
In the world of the film, all human technological development initially appears aimed at producing food in order to compensate for a weakened planetary life support system. Technological leaps that were once considered benevolent and world-changing, like space exploration and medical science, are now viewed as frivolous expenditures, distractions from the business of survival. The audience is intended to mourn this loss of trailblazing, tech-enabled boldness.
We soon learn that the near-future political leaders of the film secretly believe humanity’s only chance at survival is exactly this sort of old-school techno-visionary undertaking. Which is now even more aspirational, harnessing not just spacecraft, cryogenics and artificial intelligence but also a wormhole located near Jupiter to enable faster-than-light speed. That the ostensibly natural phenomenon of the wormhole is later revealed to be a form of technology sent back in time by future humans is a fascinating twist.
Cooper collects a crew for the mission. This highly specialized team is not only necessary to tackle the task at hand but also engenders the camaraderie to ensure morale stays high in the face of daunting odds. Yes, as an entrepreneur I love this kind of team-building storyline, but it’s also just a general human thrill to see people working together for a common good.
The flesh-and-blood crew is joined by a robotic AI named TARS, and here’s where things get really interesting. Physically, TARS bears little resemblance to the human form. But its personality is deeply human—understanding, empathetic, sarcastic in inappropriate situations. And, in another fascinating statement about technology, heroic.
TARS saves Cooper’s life not once but twice, first by stopping Matt Damon’s character Mann from carrying out a plan to kill Cooper, then by docking Cooper’s ship with a wildly spinning space station. The latter scene is REALLY intense: Over a pulse-pumping score, TARS accomplishes an act of piloting that Cooper, in his human frailty, cannot. It’s an example of the kind of fruitful man-machine-symbiosis-team-building via a new kind of augmented consciousness—that the film claims is humanity’s only way to triumph over our baser impulses.
I’m not sure I agree. I’m a tech wonk through and through, and I’m certainly no anticapitalist. But I appreciate the critical read of Interstellar’s bleak depiction of a doomed Planet Earth and offworld redemption as an unsustainable extrapolation of “suicide economics,” an ideology that Sagan himself resisted. “Earth is where we make our stand,” Sagan said, redirecting Nolan’s spaceward gaze—not to mention Bezos’ and Musk’s—to our one and only pale blue dot. Reminds me of Dr. Siddartha Mukerjee’s human-centric priorities, which I mentioned in my last post: "I don't want to go to Mars right now,” he said. “I'd rather focus on cancer." Our best chance to save ourselves is here on earth, not in the stars.
But I want to return to more human concerns—specifically an idea that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Because as the tech market rollercoasters more than usual and we all endure a greater share of anxiety about the future, I think it’s important to remember that not everyone wins all the time and not all missions succeed—and that’s OK. In fact, that’s how things should be because that’s how progress happens.
Rare is the movie that depicts failure; rarer still the one that depicts team-building and budding talent and, ultimately, defeat with dignity—all with a soundtrack that thrills young and old, parents and children alike. That movie is The Commitments, a little indie flick with a very big heart.
In The Commitments, Effort is Everything
More than either Ghostbusters or Interstellar, The Commitments is a true ensemble tale. The 1991 Irish-made musical comedy tells the story of young soul-music obsessives in Dublin and their quest to put together “the hardest-working band in the world.” When it came to casting, priority was given to musical ability over acting ability—a choice that results in wonderfully accessible, authentic characters and an impossibly charming film.
The city of Dublin plays a major role, too, as a market hungry for the true-blue tunes performed by the Commitments, the movie’s eponymous band. The film depicts all sorts of loutish behavior by wisecracking blue-collar characters living on the margins and churns through f-words like so many pints at the pub—basically the prototype for every Guy Ritchie film ever made—and follows a band that barely hangs together before falling apart. And yet it’s a joy to watch.
Why? First off, the music is simply fantastic. Seeing Irish teenagers, all of whom were really playing and singing on camera, cover American soul classics like “Mustang Sally,” “Midnight Hour” and “Try a Little Tenderness” confirms these songs as timeless, universal expressions.
But more than that is the underlying message, which is one every entrepreneur should take to heart: There’s joy in striving. These characters enjoy the journey they’re on, and in turn the audience does, too. The act of building a team embodies the earnestness, the will, the beauty and the folly of human endeavor. Even in the face of ruin, the ability to pursue one’s dream alongside one’s comrades is a thrill and a privilege, the silver that lines the struggle. That goes for any creative project, whether a soul band or startup. Despite its downturned ending, the movie feels encouraging and optimistic rather than sad or saccharine. That’s a triumph of nuance, a special kind of magic—one that can make even life’s most difficult moments feel worthwhile in the long run.
The Commitments is also a resounding reminder of another important business lesson: Even if it flops initially, a good product will find its audience. The movie barely broke even at the box office, but the soundtrack sold 14 million copies. That’s a beautiful story in and of itself.
These movies all bring back great memories for me, and hopefully you too. I could go on, but I’d rather ask a question: Which not-business business movies am I missing? I'm sure more are out there and I'd love to know what they are. In the meantime, observant founders will continue to find business lessons everywhere, like it or not. I aspire to be that sort of leader at my own company, staying curious to widen my gaze and, at the same time, stay focused on what I can contribute.