Hollywood Movies in the Classroom: Bringing Finance and Business Ethics Alive

George W. Kester, Washington and Lee University

Gregory J. Cooper, Washington and Lee University

Roger A. Dean, Washington and Lee University

Peter T. Gianiodis, Clemson University

Michael G. Goldsby, Ball State University




This paper describes how Hollywood movies can be used in the classroom to bring finance and business ethics alive in ways that that are difficult to achieve in traditional lectures, assignments and written case studies. The use of seven popular full length motion pictures, four fictional and three based upon actual events, are discussed along with an approach that uses selected excerpts (film clips) in the classroom.


"Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either."


Marshall McLuhan




Teaching finance and other business disciplines poses the continuous challenge of linking the wide variety of theories to the “real world” and providing students with an organizational frame of reference that helps them understand and appreciate the relevance and context within which the subject matter applies. It is also challenging to include the human dimensions of our disciplines. It is ultimately men and women who practice finance and business, people who are motivated by egos, desire for career success, lust, money, job security, excitement, competition, greed, and power.


There is a growing body of literature that describes how business faculty can effectively use movies to teach a variety of difficult topics in the classroom. Many students, but in particular undergraduate students, do not have the business experience and organizational context within which to place much of what is learned in the classroom. This is especially the case when studying the managerial motivations (e.g., personalities, egos, and greed) surrounding strategic decisions such as corporate takeovers and proxy fights or malfeasance such as insider trading, and fraud. As demonstrated by Serey (1992), who uses the movie Dead Poets Society to teach management and organizational behavior and Harrington and Griffin (1989), who use the popular science fiction movie Aliens to teach leadership and power, movies are able to bring situations and people to life in ways that lectures, cases, and text books simply cannot.


Building upon this foundation, this paper describes how movies can be used in the classroom to facilitate learning on subjects as varied as leveraged buyouts, perverse employee incentive systems, fraudulent accounting practices, and rogue financial trading. The paper is organized as follows. The first section provides overviews of seven popular Hollywood motion pictures and how they can be integrated into finance and business courses to reinforce, illustrate, and help bring subjects alive: Barbarians at the Gate, Boiler Room, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Glengarry Glen Ross, Other People’s Money, Rogue Trader and Wall Street. The second section further elaborates the benefits of using movies in the classroom, to both substitute as well as complement traditional learning tools. The third section discusses the use of selected excerpts (film clips) from movies or television productions as an alternative to showing full length movies in the classroom.