‘Equity’ Brings Dark Side of IPO World to Sundance Film Festival

  • Anna Gunn stars as banker backing dubious tech stock offering
  • Films about Madoff, financial-TV hosts are also in the works

Hollywood is set to shine its bright light on another dark corner of the financial world.

“Equity,” the first Wall Street film in years to feature a woman in the lead role, will premiere next week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. One of 16 U.S. dramas in the annual competition that starts Thursday, the picture follows an investment banker, played by “Breaking Bad” co-star Anna Gunn, who’s passed over for promotion and struggles to pull off an initial public offering of a questionable technology start-up.

Sarah Megan Thomas
Sarah Megan Thomas
Photographer: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg

“Wall Street today, which is what our movie is about, is not Gordon Gekko,” Sarah Megan Thomas, a co-star and producer of “Equity,” said of Michael Douglas’s iconic role in the 1987 hit film “Wall Street.” “We wanted to show an accurate portrayal of Wall Street that shows gray lines.”

One of the first films to show the industry after the 2008 financial crisis, “Equity” joins a rush of movies and TV shows dramatizing the investing world as Hollywood seeks to chronicle Wall Street’s tumultuous recent history. Theaters are still showing “The Big Short,” an Oscar-nominated film about traders who prospered from the banking crisis, and CBS Corp.’s Showtime has just begun airing “Billions,” about a hedge-fund king and the ambitious prosecutor who pursues him. More is on tap.

“We have been through some kind of a financial roller coaster in the last decade or so,” said Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian who teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles. “The challenge of course is to make it dramatically interesting.”

Modern Banking

“Equity” looks at the modern world of investment banking, depicting the challenges confronting female bankers in a mostly male world, job losses after the financial crisis, regulation and unicorns, as today’s hot startups are now known. Thomas was inspired by her own experience. When Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed in 2008, she was on honeymoon with her husband, a banker there.

The filmmakers, including director Meera Menon and writer Amy Fox, benefited from extensive talks with Wall Street financiers, including James B. “Jimmy” Lee, the late vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co., as well as executives at Barclays Plc and Morgan Stanley. Bankers still in senior posts on Wall Street, like Gregg Lemkau, co-head of mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., helped the movie makers. Gunn, Thomas, and co-star and producer Alysia Reiner visited the financial-services firm one day, where they got to learn about IPOs, according to a spokeswoman for the filmmakers. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, provided product support and creative input for the film.

So far, the viewing public is showing it’s interested in banking’s pop-culture moment. “The Big Short,” based on the book of the same name by author and Bloomberg View columnist Michael Lewis, has taken in $71 million in worldwide ticket sales since its Dec. 11 release, almost triple the $28 million production budget, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. Starring an ensemble cast with Christian Bale and Steve Carell, the film received five Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture.

Receptive Audience

Showtime’s “Billions” made its Jan. 17 debut to almost 3 million views, the best series debut for one of its original shows, according to the company. Damian Lewis plays the hedge-fund manager pitted against an ambitious U.S. attorney played by Paul Giamatti.

Viewers also will get two accounts of the life of fraudster Bernard Madoff this year. On Feb. 3, Walt Disney Co.’s ABC presents “Madoff,” a two-night special featuring Richard Dreyfuss in the title role. Time Warner Inc.’s HBO paired Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in its Madoff movie “The Wizard of Lies,” which will be aired this year. 

In May, Sony Corp. is scheduled to release “Money Monster.” Directed by Jodie Foster, the film features George Clooney as the host of a popular financial network show.

“Everybody has somehow a connection to either the collapse of the economy, Wall Street, loss of investment,” said Joe Pichirallo, an executive producer of “Madoff” and the chairman of undergraduate film and television at New York University. “While finances in themselves might not seem sexy, it is a story that masses of people have intersected with on one level or another. There is a lot of interest in why did these things happen.”

1930s Parallels

Kuntz, the film historian and UCLA teacher, sees parallels between the current uptick in movies about the financial world and the early 1930s. During the Depression, there was a surge in films that tried to capture the impact of the crisis on society, the most famous of which were the movies of Frank Capra, starting with “American Madness” in 1932.

Sundance has been a launchpad for acclaimed financial films before. “Boiler Room” and “Margin Call” both premiered there.

“I was curious how this one was going to feel compared to those because it’s from a predominantly female perspective," Trevor Groth, Sundance’s programming director, said of “Equity.” “A writer, director, producers, lead -- all women, in this world. That’s something I’ve never seen before, and it was interesting to see how unique it was because of that but how still it just works as a film.”

In recent years, Sundance has gained renewed importance with major Hollywood studios. As they have shifted more of their production to big-budget action and superhero pictures, they’ve turned to festivals to acquire independent films that may become awards contenders and bring kudos to a studio.

In addition to seeking recognition at Sundance, “Equity” is looking for a distributor. Thomas and Reiner’s company is Broad Street Pictures.

Broad Street

Thomas and Reiner, known for her role in Netflix Inc.’s “Orange Is the New Black,” founded Broad Street Pictures with a mission to employ more women in front of and behind the camera. Most of the film’s investors are from Wall Street, according to the filmmakers, including notable women such as Barbara Byrne, a vice chairman of Barclays, who is credited as a co-producer on the movie, according to IMDB.com.

The filmmakers “cultivated a relationship with women on Wall Street that were interested in seeing their own struggles to shatter the glass ceiling in their environment, represented on screen,” Menon said this week at a panel discussion in Los Angeles.

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