The envelope please...
The Oscars do a fine job of honoring great movies. But who honors great movies about money?
No one—until now, that is. To accompany the 87th Academy Awards, MONEY is inaugurating its own prizes to commemorate 2014’s finest cinematic lessons in personal finance. We’re calling them the Warrens, in a nod to Warren Buffett, the shrewd money manager who’s also a celebrated dispenser of financial common sense.
Had the Warrens existed in past years, awards likely would have gone to movies like Blue Jasmine, for which Cate Blanchett won a 2014 Oscar portraying a woman whose life falls apart after her husband’s Madoff-like fraud is exposed. One key lesson from that movie: Don’t abdicate all financial responsibilities to your spouse. Another: Bad things can happen if your self-image is tied up in your net worth.
Another past recipient would have been the 2009 Best Picture Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire, which, despite its focus on a get-rich-quick game show, argues that love, not money, is the key to happiness.
So which 2014 movies win this year’s Warrens, and what lessons do they teach?
The envelope please….
— By Kara Brandeisky, Margaret Magnarelli, Susie Poppick, Ian Salisbury, Taylor Tepper, and Jackie Zimmermann
In this Best Picture-nominated movie, Olivia (played by Oscar favorite Patricia Arquette), raising two children without their father, goes back to school to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That effort ultimately helps her land a dream job as a psychology professor. At a lunch celebrating her son Mason’s high school graduation, Olivia encounters a young man she once hired to install her septic tank and whom she had encouraged to go to community college. Turns out he did just that and now runs the restaurant where she’s eating. “You changed my life,” he tells Olivia. No, it was education that did it—for both of them. (For a guide to affordable colleges that have the strongest economic payback, check out Money’s Best Colleges.)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
In director Wes Anderson’s Oscar-nominated movie, famed concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) is willed a priceless work of art, “Boy With Apple,” by a rich patron of his hotel—who also happened to be his lover. The deceased’s progeny are none too pleased by this unexpected turn and go to great lengths to reclaim the valuable piece of art. This drama could have been avoided if the murdered Madame D (Tilda Swinton) had simply followed good practices in estate planning, such as identifying which possession should go to which people.
Onetime movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) sinks his life savings into a Broadway play to revitalize his career; the attendant pressures, financial on top of personal, pose serious threats to his mental health. One key takeaway: If you’re looking for a second-act career, make sure you have the resources to fund your new venture without having to make the drastic move, in Thomson’s case, of refinancing the Malibu home you promised to your daughter.
Let’s Be Cops
This buddy movie won’t win any Oscars — it scored a pathetic 30 of 100 on Metacritic—but it’s got our vote for job-switching smarts. Pals Justin (Jake Johnson) and Ryan (Damon Wayans Jr.) dress up as the fuzz for a costume party, find they like the attention their garb garners, and decide to keep up the act. After they get mixed up in a real crime, one of them—spoiler alert!— heads to the police academy. It’s a smart move to do a trial run on a dream second career. Not so smart: breaking the law in the process.
Spunky detective Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) transitioned from the small screen to the big one in 2014 to help clear the name of her hottie ex Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). While fans of the cancelled TV show were delighted to see the Neptune High gang reunited, it wasn’t the contents of this film that earned it a Warren — it was the financing. Appealing to a rabid Veronica Mars fan base, Bell and show creator Rob Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the film. The effort paid off: The film stands as Kickstarter’s highest-funded film project, and the sixth-highest-funded project ever for the site. If you have a project you’d like to raise money for, start with these tips for a successful crowdfunding campaign.
This indie hit isn’t just about food and family. It’s also about how to promote your small business on social media—and how not to. High-powered chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) makes a big mistake after joining Twitter, losing his cool and firing off a series of obscenity-laced tweets at a famous restaurant blogger. After Carl loses his job, however, his son Percy uses savvier social media posts in a wildly successful effort to promote Carl’s new venture, a Cuban sandwich truck.
Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), adjusting to life with a newborn, suddenly have their lives turned upside down when a fraternity moves in next door. Frats throw parties—loud ones that make it hard for babies to fall asleep—and soon the couple and the frat engage in an escalating series of pranks meant to make one another’s lives unbearable. Don’t want to end up like the Radners? Make sure you follow these steps when shopping for a home, and find a good real estate agent who is extremely knowledgeable about the neighborhood where you’re looking.
A Most Violent Year
In this movie from Margin Call director J. C. Chandor, beleaguered heating-oil company owner Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) coaches his sales force on how to close a deal. The key, he says, is projecting an aura of quality in even the subtlest of gestures—if a customer offers coffee or tea, for example, take tea because it’s the “fancy” choice. “We’re never going to be the cheapest option, so we have to be the best,” he says. “When you look them in the eye you have to believe that we are better—and we are—but you will never do anything as hard as staring a person straight in the eye and telling the truth.” Of course, sending a message about quality—whether or not it’s true—does something else: it gets people to spend more. That’s why we pull back the curtain on all the subliminal tricks that salespeople use to loosen your purse strings.
You’ve probably heard of the importance of building up an emergency fund in order to cope when disaster strikes in the form of a job loss, or perhaps a costly family health issue. The necessity of having a nest egg to fall back on takes quite a different level of importance in this film, in which a literature professor and severe gambling addict named Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) winds up owing several hundred thousand dollars to various underworld characters. At one point, Bennett turns for help to another loanshark named Frank (John Goodman), who offers a brilliant lecture on why an emergency fund is so critical—only with a lot more expletives than the typical personal finance expert. “Somebody wants you to do something, f*** you. Boss p***** you off, f*** you! Own your house. Have a couple bucks in the bank,” Frank explains. “A wise man’s life is based around f*** you. The United States of America is based on f*** you.”
It’s worth noting that there are also better ways to pay off debt than turning to loansharks. Assuming, of course, your life isn’t on the line in the matter of a few days.