Investors Are Still Returning to Movie That Defined 2008 Crisis

J.C. Chandor’s career as a screenwriter was at a low ebb when he penned “Margin Call” to capture the stomach-churning moment when an investment bank’s highly leveraged bets come crashing down.

The movie, featuring Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey and Zachary Quinto, distilled the angst of the 2008 financial crisis and proved against the odds that there’s dramatic potential in mortgage-backed securities, propelling Chandor to fame.

Investors Are Still Returning to Movie That Defined 2008 Crisis

Ten years on from its release, investors still return to “Margin Call” when panic grips the markets. Data from an account management system that tracks income from the film show viewing tends to surge during times of market volatility, Chandor told Bloomberg News in a live Q&A blog.

“I always joke with my producers that if we could somehow track the rentals of “Margin Call” in the world’s top 50 business hotels, we could probably make some decent bets on when trouble was on the horizon,” he said.

When a young risk analyst stumbles across vast losses built up by traders at an unnamed New York bank, its managers realize their unpalatable choice: make an instant fire sale of worthless securities and destroy the bank’s reputation in the investment community, or keep the assets and watch the bank go bust.

Investors Are Still Returning to Movie That Defined 2008 Crisis

“I had no idea how big it would become -- that by the time my film was released in the fall of 2011 people would be protesting in the streets with the “Occupy” movement and the markets would have to be saved the way they were. I was just a touch ahead of the actual story,” said Chandor.

The film was “pretty much spot on” when it comes to the realities of Wall Street in 2008, said Citigroup global market strategist Matt King, namely the the way subprime risk was poorly understood and problems in one part of the business suddenly mushroomed to destroy the institution.

“History is littered with examples of markets moving much more than people anticipated, and large sums being made or lost as a result: Just look at Archegos or GameStop,” said King, whose 2008 piece “Are the brokers broken?” predicted the fall of Lehman Brothers.

Cheap Money

Chandor began writing the screenplay that year after Bear Stearns fell victim to the subprime mortgage crisis. The challenge was to make the audience care about the fate of the protagonists at a time when the reputation of investment bankers was in shreds. His answer: “keep it real and human.”

He’d known the banking world since visiting the trading floor of Merrill Lynch with his father, who worked there for 40 years. Research for the movie involved visits to the old Salomon floor at Citi to give the actors the feel of a real trading room.

The closest the movie comes to an apologia for the crisis comes when Will Emerson, a credit trader played by Paul Bettany, insists the bank is simply finding ways to give the world what it wants -- access to cheap money.

Investors Are Still Returning to Movie That Defined 2008 Crisis

“That type of hypocrisy is something that I personally find fascinating and am always trying to explore,” said Chandor. “It’s a question of: Is it the system that’s to blame, the people operating within the particular system, or the rest of us who allow the system to exist and benefit from it even if we disagree with it?”

The movie returns to a well-worn theme when Hollywood meets Wall Street -- money is so abstract that working with it ends up being a game. In one of the film’s most iconic lines, the bank’s urbane CEO John Tuld, played by Jeremy Irons, explains why Spacey’s character should sacrifice his career to save the bank.

“It’s just money,” he says. “Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other to get something to eat.”

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