TORONTO (AP) — Think of movies about the financial system and your mind is almost sure to go to Gordon Gekko and “Wall Street” or Leonardo DiCaprio’s gyrating Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
When Hollywood takes on Wall Street, it usually heads straight to the C-suite.
The protagonist of “Dumb Money,” though, is an amateur investor who trades out of his basement in Brockton, Massachusetts, with a bandana tied around his head and a Belgian beer in his hand.
This is Keith Gill (played in the film by Paul Dano), also known as Roaring Kitty. In 2021, Gill’s enthusiastic endorsement of GameStop stocked helped fuel a viral trading frenzy that rocked Wall Street and humbled the hedge funds that has shorted the brick-and-mortar video game company.
Now, Sony Pictures is betting that a David vs. Goliath story that played out on Reddit message boards can be a big-screen attraction, too. Like any investment, it carries some degree of risk.
“Dumb Money,” made for about $30 million, is charging into a still-fresh wound for some Wall Street power players; at least one executive portrayed in the film has reportedly threatened to sue.
The film, which opens in limited release Friday and expands in the next several weeks, will also have to sell itself without its colorful ensemble cast (including Pete Davidson, Seth Rogen, America Ferrara, Anthony Ramos and Shailene Woodley) due to the actors strike. And then there’s the inherent challenge of making a dramatic narrative out of a revolution that occurred mainly on computer screens and smartphones.
Yet Craig Gillespie, director of the Tonya Harding black comedy “I, Tonya,” managed to corral a brash online movement into a remarkably rollicking and crowd-pleasing entertainment that's already stoking some of the same energy that sent GameStop soaring. Ticket prices to the movie’s Toronto International Film Festival were driven past $900 on secondary seller websites.
“As much as it’s a really fun ride, ultimately I wanted to respect the frustration and the outrage that was happening,” says Gillespie.
There are many ironies surrounding “Dumb Money.” It will play in AMC Theaters, which followed GameStop as a meme stock, pumping up its share price at a time when movie theaters were reeling from the pandemic.
“I think we should go to AMC Theaters and we should bring stuff from Bed Bath and Beyond and carry Blackberries,” says Ben Mezrich, author of the book the film’s adapted from, “The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees.”
Mezrich, whose 2009 book about Mark Zuckerberg, “The Accidental Billionaire,” served as fodder for David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” immediately recognized the potential drama in the GameStop phenomenon. On the day the company's stock surpassed $300 a share, he began plotting a book that could adapted into a movie.
“By the end of that day, I knew that this was something that I wanted to write and I could see it as a film,” says Mezrich. “That night, I wrote a 12-page proposal and treatment as both a movie and book idea. By the end of the week, we had a movie.”
“Dumb Money” proceeded at a ripped-from-the-headlines pace — fast enough that most of those involved making it failed to invest, themselves. Gillespie was able to follow the phenomenon thanks to his 24-year-old son, who had been involved with the subreddit Wall Street Bets.
“I got to live it through him,” says Gillespie. “That was a huge touchstone for me in terms of the emotionality of the film. That frustration, that outrage, all those emotions that were happening through this. I actually got in too late, myself. My son warned me: You got in too late.”
Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, two former Wall Street Journal reporters turned screenwriters, came on to write the script. For them it was a way to extend their interest in the power of internet populism — and they already had some experience turning digital-based stories into something human.
“We wrote a film about GamerGate a long time ago that didn’t get made,” says Blum. “The producer in that process was like, ‘Alright, let’s just go out and invent a new language of cinema.’ It has taken many years trying to figure out: How do you make a story like this cinematic?”
“Dumb Money” seamlessly juggles a wide spectrum of characters who invest in GameStop for various reasons — a Pittsburgh single-mother nurse (Ferrera), a GameStop employee (Ramos), a pair of in-debt college students (Myha’la Herrold and Talia Ryder) — while breezily synthesizing the complicated economic context.
“We don’t need Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining complex financial concepts,” says Angelo, referencing 2015's “The Big Short.”
The meme-stuffed grammar of the film owes much to the frenetic, inundating experience of social media, but it also works as a surprisingly accurate portrait of the pandemic. You may be surprised how affectingly, and empoweringly, the film uses the then-ubiquitous TikToks of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage.”
“It was a time when people were feeling very small. They feel small, they feel powerless, they feel that the system is rigged,” says Angelo. “And this was an opportunity to feel big and find power in numbers.”
Gill, himself, dropped out of the spotlight as fast he entered it. His last tweet from his “Roaring Kitty” account was posted in 2021, of sleeping kittens. His investments, originally about $50,000 (much of his young family’s savings) when GameStop was going for about $5 a share, at one point reached $48 million in value.
The filmmakers attempted to reach Gill but ultimately respected his privacy and had no direct contact with him. Gill has said little publicly since testifying before Congress in 2021. Lawmakers were then probing whether the rally had violated regulations of market manipulation.
Gill maintained that he advocated for GameStop “for educational purposes only, and that my aggressive style of investing was unlikely to be suitable for most folks.” He simply believed in the company.
“In short,” Gill said, “I like the stock.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
Jake Coyle, The Associated Press