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6 Great Business Documentaries That Are Not Business Documentaries


There are amazing business stories hidden within the sports, art, and fashion worlds.


There's not exactly a booming market for business documentaries. They're not even big enough to get a subgenre category on Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and (NASDAQ:AMZN).

But that's OK, because the larger world of documentary films is packed full of interesting business stories.

The six documentaries I'm recommending today come from worlds we don't normally associate with business, such as high fashion and skateboarding.

That means they include truly alternative perspectives on traditional topics such as executive leadership and marketing -- something we don't get from traditional business content.

1. ESPN's 30 for 30: The Fab Five

In 1992, the University of Michigan Wolverines men's basketball team became the biggest story in college sports by making it to the finals of the NCAA tournament with an unusual starting lineup -- five freshmen.

The Fab Five tells the story of the unit's formation, the subsequent media frenzy, and the injection of hip-hop culture into college basketball.

Why It's a Great Business Documentary:

The Fab 5 became part of a University of Michigan scandal related to NCAA rules violations. A Michigan booster named Ed Martin was found to have been making payments to players, including Fab 5 star Chris Webber, since the 1990s, though the rules state that players cannot be paid. The Fab 5-led teams' Final Four banners were removed from Michigan's basketball arena, and five seasons of victories were vacated.

This speaks to a bigger business story -- the question of whether college athletes deserve compensation. The Fab 5 generated untold fortunes for Michigan, TV networks, and athletic gear companies such as Nike (NYSE:NKE).

Did they deserve to get paid all along?

Here's the full documentary on YouTube:

2. The September Issue

If you've ever wondered what goes into the production of a fashion magazine, look no further.

The September Issue follows Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and Creative Director Grace Coddington as they work around the clock and around the world to produce what was then the largest issue of Vogue in history at 820 pages.

Why It's a Great Business Documentary:

Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) Sheryl Sandberg has been calling for women to "sit at the table" instead of watching from the sidelines. Well, not only has Anna Wintour been sitting at her industry table, she's dominated it. For decades. We just haven't seen women like this profiled very often, even in today's supposedly more progressive society.

Here's the trailer:

3. The Art of Flight

Snowboarders jump from Red Bull-branded helicopters onto mountains in exotic locations and then ride down at warp speed.

Sometimes, it's in slow motion.

And it's all staggeringly beautiful. If you want to give your HDTV a workout, put this on now.

Why It's a Great Business Documentary:

Lifestyle marketing is about associating a brand with a lifestyle. Watch The Art of Flight, and you'll see it taken to the extreme. By making a cool snowboarding movie for the sake of making a cool snowboarding movie, Red Bull shows that it cares about what its target market cares about -- excitement and adventure in the form of extreme sports.

The Art of Flight shows that you can market a brand without pushing a product -- kind of like how Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF:NYSE) used naked people to sell clothes.

Here's the trailer:

You can stream the full documentary on Netflix here.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the most unusual, most entertaining documentaries I've ever seen.

It tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French-born vintage clothing store owner who obsessively documents the street art movement with his video camera. Eventually, Guetta tracks down Banksy, the legendary anonymous British street artist, at which point the plot completely goes haywire.

I won't go any further because it will ruin the fun for first-time viewers.

Why It's a Great Business Documentary:

In Exit Through the Gift Shop, art buyers are shown paying ever-large amounts of money for street art, seemingly just because it's a new, trendy thing. The film asks the age-old question "What is art?," but Exit Through the Gift Shop also raises the question "What is art worth?"

This film drives home that the point that an object is worth whatever someone else is willing to pay -- and that people will pay up big time for the right name brand.

That's a bizarre lesson to learn from a documentary about street art, but it's present all the same.

Here's the trailer:

You can stream the full documentary on Netflix here.

5. The Man Who Souled the World

In the 1990s, street skating with a punk edge was all the rage among skateboarders. At the center of the movement was Steve Rocco, a colorful entrepreneur with a take-no-prisoners attitude who founded or distributed several influential skateboard brands such as World Industries, Blind, and Plan B.

In the process, he disrupted established players such as Powell-Peralta and brought an industry notorious for outlandish marketing to new highs  -- or new lows, depending on how you look at it. For example, Rocco's skateboarding magazine Big Brother was notorious for once publishing an article on how to commit suicide, among other things.

Why It's a Great Business Documentary:

The skateboarding industry is downright fascinating, even for nonskaters, and The Man Who Souled the World documents a particularly dynamic phase of its history. It has sportwide booms and busts, upstarts taking out giants, and enough kooky characters to fill a Quentin Tarantino movie. 

I especially recommend this film to anyone with an interest in corporate rivalries, because these scrappy little skateboarding companies were not afraid to get nasty. They make Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) look like two golden retriever puppies.

Just a word of caution: This one is not for kids.

Here's the full documentary on YouTube:

6. Side by Side

I thought Keanu Reeves hit his peak when he played FBI agent/surfer Johnny Utah in 1991's Point Break, but he really topped himself by producing and narrating this effective 2012 documentary. Side by Side traces the movie industry's transition from film to digital technology.

Through interviews with luminaries such as Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and George Lucas, the documentary provides an evenhanded look at the benefits (instant feedback) and challenges (long-term archiving) created by digital film productions.

Why It's a Great Business Documentary:

Side by Side sounds like it's a documentary film about filmmaking made strictly for film buffs. And to some extent, that's true. Most people don't care about what goes into making a movie, or whether digital looks as good as film.

But Side by Side is a must-see for anyone interested in the rapid evolution toward a digital society, where mechanical processes and hands-on craftsmanship are being phased out in favor of faster and cheaper computer-based ones. And in the democratization of media discussion, there's an overwhelming focus on the distribution side of the equation -- think Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube. Side by Side emphasizes the production aspects, explaining how cheap digital video cameras from the likes of Sony (NYSE:SNE) helped kick off a revolution in the mid-1990s.

Here's the trailer:

You can stream the full documentary on Netflix here.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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