Later this summer, the Weinstein Company will release “The Founder,” a feature film about Ray Kroc, a businessman credited with buying McDonald’s in the 1950s and transforming it into one of the nation’s largest fast-food franchises. Early reviews and promotional trailers suggest it won’t be a flattering portrayal of Kroc, who is played by Michael Keaton as a brazen and ruthless businessman.
McDonald’s is probably not happy about this, but so far they’ve been mum on the topic, a wise move since any talk by them will only further link the brand with the movie. Nevertheless, it seems to be a common theme in Hollywood these days, tales of corporate greed and ambitious business leaders driven by power and money.
Last year another film about corporate greed was released, “The Big Short” with Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling. Based on a book about Wall Street speculators who profited from the 2008 financial crisis, it didn’t exactly leave viewers with a warm feeling about the economic system and those at the top. And since 2010, we’ve seen a movie depicting the rise of Mark Zuckerberg at the helm of Facebook, and several film treatments of the controversial leadership style of Steve Jobs. One could argue that these men and their companies were ultimately served by the publicity, revealing them as transformative figures who did much more good than harm, but it’s unlikely that their corporate executives and investors saw it that way.
So what should companies or high-profile executives do in response to the Hollywood treatment? In the case of Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, who was mercilessly depicted as a heartless executive in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the approach is to laugh along and look unperturbed. She attended the screening with a wide smile. This was the right call for the tongue-in-cheek tone of the movie. But not all situations are so easy, and typically, companies stay quiet on the topic, and instead opt for an approach that responds indirectly through other public relations and marketing communication initiatives.
McDonald’s has faced tougher battles with negative films, namely the 2004 documentary “Supersize Me” by Morgan Spurlock. That one required a more forceful response. “The Founder” of course will not pose a similar threat or challenge to the company’s business. But the trend in Hollywood to portray corporate leaders as villainous isn’t something to dismiss either. Their influence on the collective consumer consciousness, on attitudes and beliefs, is powerful. Staying silent might work for now, but perhaps not forever.