MONEY

What the Oscar Movies Can Teach Us About Money

The envelope please...

2015 Warrens Award
Leah Bailey

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

 

  • Best Argument for the Value of Education

    BOYHOOD, Patricia Arquette, 2014.
    Matt Lankes—IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Boyhood

    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.)

  • Best Lesson in Estate Planning

    THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, from left: Paul Schlase, Tony Revolori, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, 2014.
    Martin Scali—Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

    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.

  • Best Career-Change Advice (tie)

    BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), (aka BIRDMAN), from left: Zach Galifianakis, Michael Keaton, 2014.
    Alison Rosa—20th Century Fox

    Birdman

    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.

  • Best Career-Change Advice (tie)

    LETS BE COPS, from left: Damon Wayans, Jake Johnson, 2014.
    Frank Masi—20th Century Fox Licensing/Everett Collection

    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.

  • Best Performance by a Financing Campaign

    VERONICA MARS, Kristen Bell, 2014.
    Robert Voets—Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Veronica Mars

    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.

  • Best Small-Business Strategy

    CHEF, from left: Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau, 2012.
    Merrick Morton—Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Chef

    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.

  • Best Real Estate Recommendation

    NEIGHBORS, from left: Rose Byrne, Seth Rogen, 2014.
    Glen Wilson—Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Neighbors

    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.

  • Best Sales Pitch

    A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, from left: Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, 2014.
    Atsushi Nishijima—Courtesy Everett Collection

    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.

  • Best Argument for Having a Nest Egg

    THE GAMBLER, from left: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, 2014.
    Claire Folger—Paramount/Courtesy Everett Colle

    The Gambler

    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.

TIME Veronica Mars

The Veronica Mars Movie, and the Trouble With Getting What You Want

Veronica Mars
Robert Voets—2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars in "Veronica Mars."

Kickstarter supporters made the impossible happen. But the need to turn back time to please them kept the movie from being as good as the series was.

Significant spoilers for Veronica Mars, the movie, follow. You have been warned!

At one point during the Kickstartered revival movie Veronica Mars, our heroine tells her dad, sheriff turned private eye Keith, that he’s “the George Bailey” of Neptune, California. It becomes clear pretty soon that Veronica herself is the George Bailey of Neptune, and that her own private Bedford Falls won’t let her go. By movie’s end, she’s given up New York City, given up her law career, given up poor Piz, and accepted the destiny of defending the downtrodden in a town that would turn into Pottersville without her.

How you respond to this ending may depend in part on how you feel about the same development in It’s a Wonderful Life. I recognize that I may be in the minority here, both among Veronica Mars fans and Christmas-movie watchers: I must have seen It’s a Wonderful Life a couple dozen times at this point, and I never fail to wish against all reason that George would get in that cab, shake off the clingy neighbors trying to suck away his dreams of seeing the world, and never look back. So the fact that I had that same feeling at the end of Veronica Mars may say something about me as much as the movie.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the movie. It was great to see the cast, as Veronica put it with characteristic self-awareness, “falling right back into our old rhythms”; I loved the familiar-yet-mature rapport between Veronica and Keith. But there was a difference between how I felt while watching the movie and how I felt after having watched it. The ending nagged at me, not so much because of any choice Veronica made–though again, poor Piz!–but because it felt like the need of the project to continue the story and keep it going in the future finally overruled any natural growth on the part of the characters.

When we left Veronica and her friends, they were post-adolescents, not long out of high school. The movie picks up almost a decade later–a decade during which people do a lot of changing. If you took the story of anyone’s life from around age 20 to around age 30–Veronica’s, mine, yours–you would find a much-changed person at the end of it. Veronica Mars did, in a way: it set up a premise in which Veronica had changed considerably over the course of nine years just in time for us to see her change back for us.

It’s tricky, because in many ways the movie ably handled the theme of changing vs. accepting your fate, informed in a meta way by the awareness that this was a movie enabled by fans who had been deprived of more stories from Veronica’s youth when the show was cancelled. It was, for most of its run, a funny but bittersweet story about a woman who had a tough history going home again to confront her past one more time. But in its ending, with Veronica deciding that she was “addicted” to Neptune and to solving its problems, it felt more like a story engineered to return her to her past, presumably in the name of making possible future movies (or at least future Veronica Mars books, which are planned whether the movie franchise continues or not). It was the difference between going back for a ten-year high school reunion and, well, going back to high school. And it felt less like something Veronica needed to do than something we–who Kickstarted and supported the movie–needed her to do, to make up for the time we lost.

I don’t think the movie had to be this way. Another recent TV revival, Arrested Development, also brought back beloved characters from a beloved show, but–ironically, given its name–it recognized that the passing of time meant that the characters, and thus the show, needed to be a little different. It was not just structurally different, but darker, sadder (while still funny). It may not have pleased everyone–it couldn’t–but it accepted that it had to be a different story than it had been seven years ago.

Now, it’s easier to evolve the characters and tone of a show like Arrested Development while still keeping the cast and the premise, because it’s a story about family. True enough. But to work in the end, rather than just please people in the moment, a story needs to let its characters grow, even if that means letting some stories end for good. I’m still glad we got a Veronica Mars movie. But having had some time to think about it–I wish it gave us a little less arrested development.

TIME movies

The Veronica Mars Movie: How and Where to Watch

The crowd-funded crowd pleaser comes out Mar. 14

In this week’s issue of TIME, James Poniewozik calls the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie “a fan-pleasing reunion” — and some of the most dedicated of those fans have already seen it at sold-out fan events yesterday.

And now that it’s in theaters, as of today, the rest of us can see it the normal way (in a movie theater) — or at home. The film is also available with same-day digital, on the following services: Amazon Instant Video, Best Buy Cinema Now, iTunes, Sony Entertainment Network, Flixster, Xbox Video and Vudu. (All the links are at the official website.)

Then again, folks who don’t know that information yet may never need it: Variety‘s take on the movie was that it “makes no sense” unless you’re already a fan.

TIME Tuned In

Dead Tree Alert: We Used to Be Friends

Thanks to fans and Kickstarter, Veronica Mars is coming back. But not every beloved show should.

A year ago, I paid $35 to see a movie. Not to watch a movie, mind you: to see it made. Whether I watched the movie was entirely up to me.

That movie, you may have guessed, is Veronica Mars, the Kickstarter-funded revival of the UPN/CW series that is released in theaters and for digital download on Friday. I saw a critics’ screening of the movie last week, and my column in the print TIME this week (subscription required) looks at what it means to be a TV fan in the age where nothing really dies for sure–when cult hits can come back in the movies, on another cable channel, on Netflix:

You can buy a sequel, but you can’t buy back time. Years have passed; a movie is not the same as a TV season. The Arrested Development revival was a fascinating narrative experiment, but different–darker, stranger, sadder–from the series that fans had come to love. Would giving the fans the power of resurrection become like the horror story “The Monkey’s Paw,” reanimating zombie shows that we should have let go, remembering them at their best?

With Veronica Mars, I felt my money was well spent: the series deliberately ended without real closure, and the movie does a smart job of working the can-you-go-home-again theme into its story. On the other hand, if this had been an option when, say, Freaks and Geeks went off the air, I’d have gladly paid–and might well have regretted it in the end. Judd Apatow and Paul Feig created such a lovely ending to the single season of their show that I’m not sure it would be worth messing with for the sake of two more hours.

For that same reason, though I loved HBO’s Enlightened, I don’t agree with the calls I’ve been hearing for it to be saved by Netflix, Amazon, cable, or the movies. Mike White had wanted to continue the series, but he also created such a luminous ending for Amy Jellicoe’s story, one that felt like a series ending, that it’s best for us to move on and the talent connected to do other great work.

I’m not going to do a full advance review of Veronica Mars; it works well for fans of the series–who most likely are going to see it anyway–and I wouldn’t in good conscience recommend it to someone who never watched. (The script makes the story perfectly accessible, but it really relies on having known the characters for three seasons to have any emotional pull. If you’re interested, watch the series first.) But I may do a follow-up post after the movie’s been out for a while, to discuss some points that would be spoilers in a review.

In the meantime, though: What other shows would you like to Kickstart back into life? And what ones do you feel it would be better to leave alone–dead too young, but leaving behind beautiful reruns?

To read the full column, subscribe to TIME.

TIME movies

Can Veronica Mars Please Fan Funders and Newcomers at the Same Time?

Youtube

Does the Veronica Mars movie owe too much to its core fanbase to be enjoyable to those coming to the concept fresh?

At the heart of it, most movies have three basic aims:

1. Be Good
2. Be Profitable
3. Be Good and Be Profitable

The much-discussed Veronica Mars movie, in theaters March 14, complicates matters by adding a fourth option: Make The Fans Happy. While that’s hardly a new concept, especially in the modern movie era of franchise management and constant revivals of existing ideas and characters, the case could be made that it’s never really been a core aim for a movie before.

Instead it’s been a value add, something that certainly doesn’t hurt — who better to act as unpaid viral marketers than the core fanbase, especially in the early days of production, after all — but could (and, traditionally, will) be sacrificed in favor of appealing to the masses if the two options are in opposition (See, for example, Star Trek rebooting instead of fulfilling hardcore fans’ dreams and going with a follow-up to Star Trek: Nemesis or Man of Steel’s manslaughter finale, which led to much uproar at time of release).

Disregarding the wishes of the hardcore fans isn’t really an option for Veronica Mars, however; they’re literally the ones responsible for the film being made thanks to the Kickstarter that funded production. It’s the rare case when saying “we couldn’t have done this without the fans” is not just lip service and good PR, but the literal truth. Because of that, some level of fan service — not this kind of fan service, thankfully — is almost certainly forthcoming.

This is where Veronica Mars runs into potential trouble, for a couple of different reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, there’s the simple question of just how much fan service the movie should provide — and whether or not that’s going to hurt the movie for newcomers.

It’s already been revealed via promotional material, trailers and Kickstarter updates that almost every major character that survived the three-season-long television show (along with some minor ones, as well) will make an appearance of some kind in the movie, for example. For fans, this is a selling point: just like the high school reunion that serves as a McGuffin in the movie itself, they get the chance to catch up with what all those familiar faces have been up to over the last decade, with all of the potential for schadenfruede that brings with it.

For those who didn’t spend an hour each week in Neptune, CA, of course, having quite so many characters show up and play roles of various levels of importance throughout the whole thing could make the movie appear too busy, or even outright confusing. For the movie to succeed on a level beyond nostalgia, it has to be more than the punchline to old jokes that half the audience has never heard before — but will those who put the money up for the movie in the first place settle for that?

That’s the second problem: The fan appeal of the Veronica Mars movie wasn’t simply the chance to see the characters again, but the chance of wish-fulfillment in the way those characters have developed both individually and in relation to each other. The love triangle between Veronica, Piz and perennial bad boy Logan was not only the engine of the last season of the show — Piz taking over the role of “alternate love interest” from the pining, flat Duncan, as fans of the show doubtlessly recall — but of much of the promotion for the movie, as well. Will Veronica and Logan get back together? Should they?

Just asking that question identifies the trouble: Not everyone agrees on the answer. In fact, if you polled the Mars faithful for their ideal “ten years later” scenarios for the majority of the cast, you’d doubtlessly get a number of different, likely contradictory, answers. That saying about being able to please all of the people some of the time, or some of the people all of time is about to be lived by the Veronica Mars crew. Funding the Kickstarter and offering the idea of a reunion movie? That was the “all the people, some of the time” part. The movie itself? Now we get to some of the people — well, you know the rest.

Reunions, as most people know by now, are problematic at best; anyone who’s lived through a favorite band reuniting can attest to that. The distance between limitless potential and concrete reality can prove difficult for many to come to terms with, and leave the result almost more disappointing than the alternative of it never having happened. As it stands, the Veronica Mars movie might end up both being good and making money — but if it does so without fulfilling the expectations of those who not only wanted it the most but paid to make it happen, can it really be considered a success?

TIME movies

Watch the Opening Scene of the Crowd-Funded Veronica Mars Movie

It'll bring you up to speed in time for March 14 release

The official trailer for the Veronica Mars movie—based on the cult TV show about a teenage sleuth played by Kristen Bell—debuted in January. But fans can now get an even closer look at the upcoming film, because its opening scene has been released on YouTube.

The two-minute scene catches viewers up to speed, so even if you’ve never seen the TV show, the movie should still make sense. Crowdfunded by fans on Kickstarter, the highly-anticipated movie makes it debut on March 14, both in theaters and online.

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