Contemporary Film and Economics


Available from Routledge!


Movies! What does economics have to do with them? Well, more than you might think...

What does the movie Lion tell us about why some societies grow rich and others remain poor? What can the global, box-office juggernaut Jurassic World tell us about entrepreneurs and the ethics of business? Can the movie Passengers give us insight into human motivation and decision making? This book surveys more than 40 wide-release movies to answer these questions and much more.

Movies do a lot more than entertain. They also project important insights, often unintentional, into the way the world works and the values society cares about. Indeed, their stories are often grounded in the real-world experiences of everyday people. As part of this, movies also provide a window into understanding and evaluating economic behavior. Economics is, after all, the study of how scarce resources like labor, capital, and technology are used to improve (or reduce) our welfare. It also helps us more fully understand the consequences in our lives that result from those choices and decisions. Through exploring a wide variety of films ranging from Passengers to Victoria and Abdul, this book delves into economic concepts such as opportunity costs, profit maximization, greed, monopoly, economic growth, and entrepreneurship.

Contemporary Film and Economics is a must read for anyone interested in how movies project and interpret economic ideas, craft popular narratives for how economies operate, and explore motivations for economic behavior. Economists will find the analysis useful for starting wide ranging discussions on key concepts, while filmmakers will find the discussions of economic concepts a provocative way of thinking about how to craft engaging stories that are grounded in practical experience.

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Detailed Table of Contents


  • Chapter 1: The Economics in Film     1.1 Economics as Backstory   1.2 Economics in Contemporary Film   1.3 The Art of Visual Storytelling   1.4 A Few Caveats and Qualifications  
  • Chapter 2: A Passage to Choice     2.1 Who Benefits?   2.2 Decisions, Decisions   2.3 The Maddening Value of Trade   2.4 Concluding Thoughts  
  • Chapter 3: The Economics of Greed, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation   3.1. Greed is Good...Or Not   3.2 Putting the Social in Entrepreneurship   3.3 A New Type of Entrepreneur in Film?   3.4 The “Joy” of Entrepreneurship   3.5 Entrepreneurship and the Future of Narrative Film  
  • Chapter 4: The Labor Market Costs of Crime, Pride, and Prejudice   4.1 The Radically Upward Sloping Supply Curve   4.2 What’s in Your Bank Account?   4.3 The Dignity of Work   4.4 The Social Costs of Discrimination   4.5 Concluding Thoughts  
  • Chapter 5: Financing the Housing Crisis and the Great Recession   5.1 On the Precipice of Financial Armageddon   5.2 Who Killed the World Economy?   5.3 Whither the Banks and Corporate Finance?   5.4 Did Occupy Wall Street Scuttle the Economics in Hell or High Water? 5.5 Concluding Thoughts  
  • Chapter 6: The Nature and Causes of Wealth in Film   6.1 Is Capitalism an Unknown Ideal in Film?   6.2 The Tropes of Economic Stagnation   6.3 Can Movies Get Beyond Economic Tropes?   6.4 Rescuing Movies from Tropes   6.5 Bringing Movie Narratives on Growth Back to Earth  
  • Chapter 7: Government Without Romance   7.1 Politics Without Romance   7.2 The Economics of Factions and Governing   7.3 Rent Seeking   7.4 Beyond Corruption and Political Cynicism   7.5 Regime Uncertainty and Political Succession   7.6 Is Government a Blind Spot for Filmmakers?  
  • Chapter 8: Conclusion: The Economics Behind the Story
  • Index to Movies
  • General Index

50+ Films Examined


The Big Short, Birth of a Nation (2016), Castaway, Chinatown, Darkest Hour, Deepwater Horizon, Divergent Trilogy, Elysium, Fences, The Florida Project, The Founder, Gifted, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, The Hunger Games, Interstellar, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jason Bourne, Joy, Jurassic World, La La Land, Lincoln, Lion, Mad Max: Fury Road, Magnificent Seven (2016), Margin Call, Miss Sloane, Moonlight, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, New Jack City, Passengers, The Queen, Scarface, Slumdog Millionaire, Snowden, Star Wars, The Untouchables, Victoria and Abdul, Wall Street, War Dogs, The Wolf of Wall Street

Read My Moive Reviews


"...brilliantly merges the lens of the director with the lens of economics..."

 “Sam Staley brilliantly merges the lens of the director with the lens of economics to provide powerful insights to economic concepts and analysis. Contemporary Film and Economics starts in Hollywood and then digs deep into the world of economics.  Covering important topics such as growth, development, entrepreneurship, and political decision making, the author moves the reader from the silver screen to the everyday choices that produce wealth and prosperity.”  -- Joseph Calhoun, Director, Stavros Center for Economic Education, Florida State University and co-author Common Sense Economics. 

"Entertaining and subversively educational."

"Translating economic theories into stories that anyone can relate to is one of the more formidable challenges I face as a teacher of economics.  Staley’s Contemporary Film and Economics accomplishes that feat in a way that is entertaining and subversively educational by showing us how some of our favorite films reflect the principles of economic theory, even if they don’t know it themselves.” -- Jason Stephens, Associate Professor of Teaching at Columbia College of Chicago and Chair of the Board for Kartemquin Educational Films. 

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