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EconomicsOff Campus

When Economics meets Film  – a sensory dive into the mechanics of our world 

Reading time: 4 minutes

Economics and film are two worlds that often intertwine in ways that are not always evident. Appreciating them together can thus be at the same time insightful and fascinating. Dive into our analysis of three famous movies through this unique lens!

There’s no denying the allure of economics and film, to say nothing of their centrality in modern society, weaved as they are in our interpretations of the complexities that surround us. While two distinct and self-standing realities, economics and film often intertwine, and when they do, enriching and expounding on each other, they awaken and entertain both the poetic eye and the ingenious mind. Narrative and fact come together in shrewd storytelling in which the eloquence of art sheds light on some of the workings of our world. Sometimes, the opposite happens, where neat economic frameworks enhance both on-screen world-building and the understanding of behind-the-screen industry workings. Appreciating economics and film together can be at the same time insightful and fascinating.  

Fundamental Economic Principles Explained by Movies  

Economics can speak about film just like film can talk about economics. Movie plots can even explain fundamental economic principles, without necessarily having to discuss economics to be a movie about economics. In this, there’s the beautiful subtlety of how a more “digestible” narrative can illuminate principles that many people presume elude them.  

Let us dive into three fundamental economic principles as explained by non-economic films.  

The Hudsucker Proxy - Joel and Ethan Coen 

What was the first concept you were taught in your very first economics class? The Hudsucker Proxy embodies that concept (can you guess what it is through the story?). The plot follows college graduate Norville, who, fret as he might, cannot seem to find a job as every position that is open on the market asks for prior experience. He thus begins his career as an office clerk for a big corporation, despite his business degree. The tides turn when the managers plot to supplant the deceased founder of the corporation, Mr. Hudsucker, with an incompetent substitute to pull off a hostile takeover, and they choose Norville for the post. Selected as the dummy replacement for Mr. Hudsucker – effectively becoming the Hudsucker Proxy – Norville launches a new product, the hula hoop, that his colleagues laugh off as absurdity. Thousands of hula hoops enter the market at a drastically low price as no one seems to understand their use. Then, suddenly, the novelty takes on, the price of the hula hoop undergoes a frenzy and skyrockets. From the initial situation faced by Norville, where the supply of college candidates is so high that the market curtails the value of college education, to the demand for substitute “goods” kicking in when supply runs short, to the elasticity of consumer preferences determining frantic volatility of demand and price, this Coen Brothers comedy perfectly exemplifies the dynamics of – you guessed it – supply and demand. While a few advanced financial mechanisms are present in the narrative setup, the core of The Hudsucker Proxy is its brilliant rendition of what is perhaps the most fundamental of market forces.  

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In Time - Andrew Niccol 

Cleverly conceived and often overlooked, the second movie taken in consideration is a sci-fi embodiment of another fundamental economic principle: opportunity cost. In Time‘s premise is a future society where time has become the global currency – adults no longer age but only survive if their time/currency stock doesn’t run out. Such a simple yet ingenious setting makes opportunity cost the very essence of the movie – not only every decision but every moment that passes is a concretely forgone opportunity in this world. Every use of currency has a palpable implication: the consumer is giving up time from their own life. This movie takes the principle of “value of the next best alternative” to the extreme, as this value is omnipresent and tangible in the radical form of lifetime foregone.  

The Hunger Games  - Gary Ross 

No economics course is complete without an insight into the notion of scarcity, the single driving force behind the need for economic choice. The Hunger Games is a harsh and dramatic metaphor for scarcity and capitalistic greed. In particular, the movie’s dystopian society envisions a national division of the population into districts, each specialized in providing a single specific resource to Capitol city. The finite human and nonhuman resources are deployed in a top-down manner, with the Capitol exploiting them all for its consumerist benefits while starvation abounds in the districts. In each precinct, only one of the scarce resources used to maintain the wealthy and frivolous inhabitants of the Capitol is present, while the others run scant. This division illustrates how only limited amounts of each good can be produced in society, and capitalistic greed binds to this notion as instead of being redistributed among the population, resources are consumed unilaterally. The raw violence of the movie all but enhances the idea that scarcity is key to economic decisions and can be wielded as a social weapon, as occurs in the flawed backdrop of this provocative movie.  

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Movies teach us about the principles we use to understand the world – they are a remarkable attempt at breathing life into the truths of our society.  Directors and screenwriters alike, and all those involved in the creative making of a picture, imbue their interpretation of reality onto the screen. It’s remarkable to note that personal outlooks don’t hinder the exemplification of concepts that are at the core of the economic viewpoint and method. Instead, perhaps unconsciously, these economic principles are internalized then portrayed in an eloquent and accessible way, becoming central to films like The Hudsucker Proxy, In Time, and The Hunger Games. 

Author profile

I was born and raised in the beautiful Milan, where I attended international schools and grew up in a multicultural environment. I love writing about film and the arts combined with economics, society and politics. In fact, I am fascinated by the ambiguity and paradoxes of written word, and how its power remains that of revealing, creating and sharing truth. In Bocconi, I study International Economics and Finance. If I’m not doing any of this, chances are I’m practicing some yoga !

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