Felix Salmon

Too Big To Fail, the movie

Felix Salmon
May 11, 2011 20:55 UTC

Over the weekend I watched the HBO movie version of Too Big To Fail, and I talked to Andrew Ross Sorkin about it on Monday.

As you can probably tell from the movie trailer, it’s got lots of dramatic music and equally dramatic moments — Paul Giamatti (Ben Bernanke), for instance, telling a room of assembled politicians that he’s spent his entire academic career studying the Great Depression, and that “if we do not act, boldly and immediately, we will replay the depression of the 1930s. Only this time, it will be. Far, far worse.”

It’s a curious fish, this film: there are so many white guys in suits that unless you already know the story going in it’s pretty much impossible to tell who’s who — with the exception of the lead character, Hank Paulson, played with searing intensity by William Hurt. And this isn’t the story of the crisis — for that, the Oscar-winning Inside Job will serve you much better. This is just the story of the short period of time during which Lehman collapsed, AIG was bailed out, and TARP got enacted.

What I worry about is that with the movie concentrating on a brief period of time — just one month in the course of a crisis which started much earlier and ended much later — the public will continue to think of TARP as the defining bailout and government action of the crisis. In reality, however, monetary policy was much more important than fiscal policy, and TARP wasn’t even the most effective fiscal policy — that was the Obama stimulus package which was pushed through in early 2009.

The movie is also a combination of too complicated and too simple. It’s too complicated in that there are too many characters and it’s hard to keep them all straight, and the occasional kludgy attempt at explaining, say, why AIG collapsed falls very flat. And it’s too simple because the corners that were cut turn out to create misleading impressions — that Warren Buffett was willing to buy into Lehman Brothers at $40 per share, for instance, or that the Chinese government was a significant shareholder in Frannie.

But the fact is that even though the financial crisis really did threaten the global economy, it wasn’t really a thrilling human drama. As Lloyd Blankfein says to his chief of staff Russell Horwitz, “You’re getting out of a Mercedes to go to the New York Federal Reserve, you’re not getting out of a Higgins Boat on Omaha Beach. Keep things in perspective.” If you want a thrilling drama, then Hollywood is good at making those. And if you want to understand the financial crisis, this film is too constrained in time to really explain what happened. So I’m not sure really what the film is good for, beyond providing some welcome money for financial journalists like Sorkin, Joe Nocera, and Bethany McLean. I’m all in favor of that!


only what their Wall Street brethren did (when they created synthetic CDOs): they’re both trying to sell the highs by offering crap to consumers too dumb to know any better.

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The new Oscar math

Felix Salmon
Jun 29, 2009 15:36 UTC

David Carr nails the financial implications of doubling the number of Best Picture nominees at the Oscars. It’s bad for the studios — which will now have even more films to market to the Academy in the hope of winning the award; it’s good for media outlets like Variety which get a lot of those marketing dollars; and it’s something of a wash for viewers:

Americans have tuned out the Oscars not because “The Dark Knight” didn’t get a nomination, but because the telecast is jammed with obscure awards that they have no say over — this isn’t “American Idol” — and no rooting interest in. What the Oscars need is fewer awards, not more nominees. As long as we are doing the math, does the academy really need three awards for short films and two separate awards for sound?

It is a bit weird that Hollywood types are “livid” about this move — one would think that they’re powerful enough to have prevented it from happening. In any event, they’re surely powerful enough to roll it back if and when it proves a dud. I give this experiment one year, three at the most.


What jonathan Said. In response to Carr’s specific complaint: two separate awards for sound–absolutely. (And that’s even ignoring that those nominees tend to be the blockbusters that people saw, such as _Transformers_ or _ST:The Next Parody_.) Same as one award for direction and another for editing. (We all saw _The Sixth Sense_: a masterpiece of editing that overcame pedestrian directing in the most positive interpretation.)

Three awards for short films? Maybe not, but be careful. Certainly two (one documentary, one Pixar shorts–er, fiction). And be careful with this one: between YouTube and iFilm and the like, more and more of the potential audience will either (1) have seen the films or (2) want to see them afterward. From the perspective of getting some return on that investment, short films probably have a higher ROI than the 9th and 10th nominee for Best Picture ever will.

You and Carr are not wrong that 10 BP nominees is too many–although I’ll give odds that one of the pleasanter side effects is that the films that came out a month or two ago will get more attention (the ones that won’t have a Major Video Release before Thanksgiving but will have been gone from the theatre long enough that they might be overlooked). Again, from an ROI perspective, this might not be a bad move.

The question is what this does to the length of the show. There aren’t that many things that can be sidebarred from the current version–the Tech awards are already reduced from the old 3-5 minutes to a 45-second slot, the PwC announcement appears to be nowhere, the Best Songs were done as a boring medley this year, and even the Academy President speech was truncated this year. Unless they’re adding half an hour to the scheduled show time, everything else (the Opening Number, the Necrology, the Thalberg Award) is something that attracts people to the show. And how much time can you really save by cutting down, say, Best Foreign Film (which, again, lost time this year, iirc)?

Now, if the expansion to 10 also means getting rid of “the Pixar Category,” then it might even be a good idea. But it’s not going to make the show run short enough to still pretend it will be 3 or 3.5 hours.

The Best Picture Oscar gets even less important

Felix Salmon
Jun 24, 2009 19:28 UTC

Joe Weisenthal is right that the value of a Best Picture nomination has just plunged, now that the number of Best Picture nominees has doubled. What he doesn’t mention is that although there might be some marginal boost for film studios who would otherwise not have gotten a Best Picture nomination at all, there is probably going to be a significant devaluation of the actual Best Picture award.

The Oscars — like much mass media — are in trouble these days, and are having difficulty keeping the interest of the general public, and one of the main reasons is that the Best Picture award tends to go to relatively small and arty films rather than the blockbusters watched by a large chunk of the population. (It’s no coincidence that the 2004 awards, where the Best Picture gong went to Lord of the Rings, got the highest ratings in recent history.)

The move to 10 nominees from five is only going to exacerbate this problem: under the Academy’s first-past-the-post voting system, a film could theoretically win the award with less than 15% of the total vote. And as a result, tiny but much-loved films will have a serious advantage over big all-things-to-all-people features, which are much less likely to be any given voter’s absolute favorite movie of the year.

So while this might be a good move in the short term for the studios, it’s a bad move in the long term for the Oscars. I don’t think it’ll last.


Ann Althouse posts an e-mail pointing out a manner in which this might actually increase the chance of a blockbuster winning the actual award here:

http://althouse.blogspot.com/2009/06/now -there-will-be-10-nominees-for-best.html

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