Why Did Three Management Narratives Win Oscars?

It is unusual for three management narratives – The King’s Speech, The Social Network, and Inside Job – to win Academy Awards in one year. Why did they win, and does three wins in one year represent something more than serendipity?

Two of the three movies are products of the times. Inside Job dealt with the decade’s major economic crisis and Social Network with its major technological opportunity. The King’s Speech is not so topical, and was delayed so long after King George VI’s death because the family of his speech therapist Lionel Logue would not cooperate with screenwriter David Seidler until after the death of the Queen Mother in 2002. So it is somewhat serendipitous that it came out in a year where there already two good management narratives.

Why did each win? I won’t try to reconstruct why both the general public and the members of the Academy preferred these films to those with which they were competing. I will, however, start with my conceptual framework for understanding political or management narratives. It’s a four quadrant diagram, with the protagonist’s narrative arc on the horizontal axis and the narrative arc of the organization or polity in which the protagonist is located on the vertical axis. For both the protagonist and the organization/polity there are two possible outcomes, renewal or decline. So the upper left quadrant represents heroic narratives where both the protagonist and polity experience renewal, and the lower right quadrant tragic outcomes where both the protagonist and polity decline. The lower left quadrant is an ironic outcome, where the protagonist’s well-being improves despite the polity’s decline. The upper right is the sacrificial or retributive outcome, where the protagonist’s well-being declines even though the polity improves.

In my view, this framework represents how people think about narratives, or at least how they think about management narratives. Unconsciously, perhaps, they identify a movie as fitting within one of the four quadrants and then judge it in terms of their expectations for that quadrant. And it is this judgment that determines its popularity.

Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job is the quintessential lower left quadrant ironic movie. The global economic recession, with its widespread social traumas like unemployment and housing foreclosure represents the polity’s decline. But the bankers, hedge fund capitalists, and misguided policy makers who put in place the practices and made the policy decisions that caused the recession have personally benefited from these practices and decisions, often on a massive (millions if not billions) scale.

Ferguson’s making of the documentary was an attempt to explain why the recession came about and to hold the bankers, hedgies, and policy makers accountable. When that community caught wind of his project, many refused to talk. But he had the good fortune that some agreed to talk, and thereby exposed their personal greed and indifference to the public good. (In my post of last Nov. 14 I note that four academics economists – John Campbell, Martin Feldstein, Glenn Hubbard, and Frederic Mishkin –demonstrated themselves to be the financial community’s useful idiots, much to the amusement of Ferguson’s audience).

As Ferguson himself in an interview in the New York Times on Friday Feb. 24, Inside Job is a movie motivated by a sense of injustice, a desire to find the cause, hold the malefactors accountable, and find ways to prevent the problem from recurring. Its effective communication of this reformist message appealed to audiences, critics, and members of the Academy.

As I argued in my post of Jan. 23 about The King’s Speech, it is the classic upper-left quadrant heroic movie, incorporating both an act of personal renewal, George VI overcoming his stutter, and national renewal, the UK replacing an unfit king (Edward VIII) with one who would ultimately embody the national will to resist Nazism. Heroic, or feel-good movies, if done well, are very popular. Audiences identified with both aspects of renewal, one the common fear of speaking in public, and the other the conflict that remains the epitome of a just war. Maybe the model they were judging it against was Casablanca, the classic tale of personal renewal in the context of that war.

Why did The King’s Speech trump The Social Network, also an excellent movie? (See my review of the latter posted last Oct. 26). One might also say that The Social Network is also an upper-left quadrant movie, because protagonist Zuckerberg gets mega rich and the world, presumably, is a better place because half a billion people now use Facebook. But the narrative is much more ambiguous. The movie, unflatteringly and apparently inaccurately, portrays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as an aspie-loser-geek, and becoming wealthier than God still doesn’t overcome his essential geekiness. And it still leaves us asking if Facebook has made the world a better place.

So we have a choice between a full-blooded heroic feel-good movie and a much more ambiguous and ironic tale that floats around the edges of the upper left quadrant. Sophisticated high-brow critics prefer the subtle tale but the majority goes for the inspirational story. And the Academy listened to the majority.

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