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10 Business Lessons From Christmas Movies


Beneath the spirit of the season we've found some basic market truths.

It's a Wonderful Life
The Movie: It's a Wonderful Life

The Business Lesson:
Talk to your investors; be transparent.

Frank Capra's inventive 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life describes the life-and absence-of George Bailey, a resident of little Bedford Falls who discovers what the world would be like had he never lived. Among the many instructive incidents of George's life, the run on the Bailey Savings and Loan seems particularly timely. When local investors panic and try to withdraw their money from the Bailey family business, George attempts to calm the crowd with an impromptu breakdown of the little firm's investment portfolio, describing how local savings are benefiting the community. Later, when we are shown the consequences of George's absence, we also see what would happen without the Bailey Savings and Loan. Bedford Falls has become Potterville, a town that now belongs lock, stock and barrel to the evil Mr. Potter. Some would call that capitalism-the Newt Gingrich version of this movie would probably have a very different slant. Nevertheless, the Bailey Savings and Loan survives, thanks to George's forthright report to the shareholders. In this post-Madoff era, companies would do well to remember the value of clear communication and corporate transparency. Call it the Bailey Doctrine. It's a wonderful strategy.

- Steve Burgess
Miracle on 34th Street
The Movie: Miracle on 34th Street

The Business Lesson: Responsiveness, flexibility and honesty build customer loyalty.

Edmund Gwenn plays Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street, released in 1947. Hired as a department store Santa at Macy's, he promptly breaks the rules by telling some customers they'd have better luck finding what they're looking for over at Gimble's. Macy's management is outraged. But by looking beyond short-term considerations in favor of genuine customer service, Gwenn's Santa creates great buzz, builds loyalty, and expands Macy's customer base. In an era when voicemail menus have largely replaced human contact and frustrated consumers feel increasingly alienated, a strategy of honest, customer-centered service can pay big dividends.

- Steve Burgess
Trading Places
The Movie: Trading Places

The Business Lesson: "Think big, think positive, never show any sign of weakness. Always go for the throat. Buy low, sell high."

These are the words of Louis Winthorpe III, the fallen commodities trader left destitute by a cruel bet, instructing his new partner, the formerly homeless Billy Ray Valentine, as they prepare to enter the New York Commodities Exchange. Randolph and Mortimer Duke, the callous and greedy Duke brothers, have wagered that they can take a common street criminal, Valentine, and make him a successful businessman while simultaneously taking a successful businessman and turning him into a common street criminal. Trading Places, get it? Also, the exchange floor, the commodities pit, trading places, still get it?

Sure, the words of Winthorpe are tired Wall Street cliches. Buy low and sell high? Really? Thanks! But Wall Street is famous for its cliches, and to understand them is to begin to understand the thunderous herd mentality that governs financial transactions. Trading Places is a comedy, it's tag line, "Some very funny business." But comedies subvert convention. The subversive moment in Trading Places, our ultimate lesson in business, occurs near the end of this Christmas season story, when our callous millionaires find a tiny measure of redemption:

Randolph Duke: Money isn't everything, Mortimer.
Mortimer Duke: Oh, grow up.
Randolph Duke: Mother always said you were greedy.
Mortimer Duke: She meant it as a compliment.

- Kevin Depew
A Nightmare Before Christmas
The Movie: The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Business Lesson: Before launching a merger or hostile takeover, ask yourself: Are these two cultures really compatible?

The richly perverse world of 1993's Nightmare Before Christmas isn't just for fans of macabre stop-action animation comedy. Corporate merger merchants can derive valuable insight from this tale of, essentially, a failed takeover. Our dashing, bony hero Jack Skellington is a resident of Halloween Town, where every day is Halloween. It's more pleasant than that sounds -- his fellow citizens are actual ghouls, witches and goblins rather than co-workers tramped out as Sexy Boba Fetts, Internet memes and Lady Gagas -- but still, a certain tedium sets in, as it would in any monoculture.

So when Skellington discovers a portal into Christmas Town, where every day is you-guessed-it, he is captivated (again, this is co-writer and producer Tim Burton and animation genius and director Henry Selick's charmingly eccentric version of Christmas, not your local mall's) and attempts to take over December 25th.

But like Time Warner's Gerald Levin at the turn of this last century , upon falling in wrongheaded corporate love with AOL, or Raymond Smith of Bell Atlantic, attempting to shell out 33 billion for TCI in the mid-90s, Skellington fails to do due cultural diligence. He loves Christmas because it's new, different and exciting, but he doesn't dig deep and understand it. When he and the Halloween gang kidnap Santa and take over his route on Christmas Eve, they get the general concept right – deliver gifts to kids – but screw up the details in a way that shows they never understood the spirit of the thing – the gifts they deliver tend to be grotesque shrunken heads, giant Christmas-tree devouring snakes, etc.

Their plot to takeover Christmas fails because they don't truly understand the nature of their target. Keep that in mind, all you would-be corporate raiders and expansionist captains of industry, as visions of sugarplum social media start-ups dance in your head this Christmas Eve.

- Matthew Mallon
The Movie: Elf

The Business Lesson: Protect your brand against knock-offs.

In this 2003 charmer, Will Ferrell is Buddy the Elf, a human raised at the North Pole among Santa and his elves. When he returns to New York he is shocked by the proliferation of bewhiskered fat men in red pajamas. "You sit on a throne of lies!" he informs one department store phony.

Buddy's reaction summarizes the harmful effects counterfeits and knock-offs can have on brand integrity. For the Santa brand any semblance of quality control has long since slipped away and the result is exactly the kind of disillusionment expressed here. This film should be standard viewing at every couture company boardroom and DVD distribution house.

- Steve Burgess
 Charlie Brown Christmas
The Movie: A Charlie Brown Christmas

The Business Lesson: Commercialization is key to success.

No Christmas special corrals the enduring fondness generations of Americans have reserved for Charles M. Schulz' A Charlie Brown Christmas. I've always fallen right in line with the most nostalgic Peanuts' devotees of the 1965 Emmy and Peabody Award-winning television special, with its classic Vince Guaraldi jazz score, quirky choreography and sad sack protagonist facing an existential crisis.

Watching the special for the first time with adult eyes, I expected to finally digest its 'true meaning of Christmas' and anti-materialism themes. Maybe I'm missing something, and I don't mean to take a you-know-what all over everyone's childhood memories, but the message I took away from a grownup viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas is that commercialization IS key to success.

When Snoopy bedecks his doghouse in Christmas decor for a neighborhood display contest, Charlie Brown thinks his dog has fallen victim to the crass consumer trappings of Christmas. Later, Lucy charges Charlie Brown with the task of buying an aluminum tree (all the rage of the mid-60s) for the Christmas pageant and he is roundly mocked when he returns with a tiny, gaunt, but real tree. The gang finally throws its support around Charlie Brown once his tree gets a proper makeover, courtesy of the decorations from Snoopy's prize-winning doghouse -- the very symbol of commercialism. Gathered around the refurbished tree, Charlie Brown et al belt out "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" to celebrate their manufactured success.

It's a contradiction, Charlie Brown!

- Diane Bullock
Christmas Vacation
The Movie: Christmas Vacation

The Business Lesson: Do not empty your RV's septic tank into the sewer because the buildup of methane gas could cause a city-wide blackout.

Ho, ho. Never mind all that. The real business lessons from the 1989 film Christmas Vacation are numerous and obvious: don't substitute employee cash bonuses with jelly-of-the-month club subscriptions; don't hire contractors for pool work unless you have the capital on hand; don't kidnap your boss; never wear a forest green dickie under a white sweater.

But on this holiday season we're not here to merely recap the obvious. Rather, let's dig deeper. The story-line for the film is familiar -- a bumbling idealist seeks to capture the perfect family Christmas... and all hell breaks loose. The humor lies in the visual and narrative juxtapositions -- the ideal of the perfect family holiday gathering against the reality of a group of flawed human beings thrown together not by choice, but by virtue of a blood connection sealed by pure chance; the urbane Clark Griswold against the profane Cousin Eddie.

And therein lies our lesson. Building a successful business demands the constant search for perfection balanced against the reality of constant flaws and failure. The beauty of it lies not in the achievement of perfection, but the process of searching for it.

- Kevin Depew
A Christmas Tale
The Movie: A Christmas Tale

The Business Lesson: In a bailout situation, there are no martyrs.

This 2008 French drama starring Catherine Deneuve explores the fraught relationships that can develop within a family. It also examines more existential questions about how well a person can know oneself and others. Buried in the themes is a timely lesson about the nature of financial bailouts: sometimes they are a necessary evil.

The back story to this family's dysfunction centers on a conflict between the daughter Elizabeth Vuillard and her brother Henri, who have not seen or spoken to each other in five years. Their estrangement is linked to a financial crisis sparked by Henri's characteristically irresponsible behavior. He had bought a theater and successfully mounted Elizabeth's plays, using their father as a guarantor. Having mismanaged the theater's books with spectacular incompetence, however, Henri is sued by his vendors. The young man is asked to make a choice -- go to jail or watch his father go bankrupt. Henri elects to sacrifice his father. A disgusted Elizabeth steps in with a check, saving the day. Her only stipulation? Henri must be banished from all family affairs.

Now the family matriarch (played by Deneuve), a formidable spirit, develops terminal cancer and needs a marrow transplant. The Vuillards rally, returning to the family home for Christmas. Guess who is one of two matches for the mother's transplant?

By not letting the one fall into ruin, Elizabeth may have saved the whole.

- Sara Churchville
A Christmas Carol
The Movie: A Christmas Carol, a.k.a. Scrooge

The Business Lesson: Activist shareholders should never stop running the numbers.

Countless versions of the Christmas Carol story have been filmed, but none better than the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim. There's no doubt that the moral of Dickens' holiday ghost story largely involves love, goodwill, charity, and unselfish service to humanity. But those who seek business wisdom can profitably turn to the 1951 screenplay, which expands somewhat on Dickens' original tale. In this version Scrooge and his partner Marley discover that their employer has been embezzling. They offer to make good the losses in exchange for control of the firm. Later Scrooge will learn other lessons of a more personal nature. But there's something to be said for Scrooge and Marley's ability to seize an opportunity produced by careful scrutiny of corporate finances, not to mention the careful management of their own resources that provides them with the financial means to capitalize on the developing situation. And remember, once you take over the company you always provide Bob Cratchit with a nice fat Christmas goose. Perhaps even a full day off.

- Steve Burgess
A Christmas Story
The Movie: A Christmas Story

The Business Lesson: The best product placements happen by accident.

Over the years this 1983 film has steadily gained ground as a popular holiday classic. Along the way it has been provided a steady stream of free publicity for the Red Ryder BB gun.

Ralphie, the movie's main character, believes that the Red Ryder gun is the perfect Christmas gift. All his efforts are aimed at somehow acquiring it. The story was adapted from Jean Shepherd's original story, but you couldn't ask for a better marketing pitch-it's like a 90-minute infomercial that people actually pay to see. That may explain why the Daisy company still makes Red Ryder BB guns even though both the comic book and TV show for which the gun was named have been extinct for half a century. However, there is a dark side to this advertising bonanza-Ralphie is constantly being told, "You'll shoot your eye out!" Since the film does not follow Ralphie to adulthood we never find out if this proves to be the case, and parents may take the warnings to heart. Product placement can sometimes backfire.

- Steve Burgess
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