Brow Beat

The Making of “Margin Call”

So let’s say you’re a first-time director with a budget of $700,000 or so. You decide you want to make a film about mortgage-backed securities and their role in the recent financial crisis. Sounds a bit esoteric, perhaps, but certainly a good subject for a thoughtful documentary.  But why not, instead, write a drama? And maybe cast Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons in the main roles, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto as well, and add Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore in support?

If that sounds a little implausible, it is, nonetheless, the story behind Margin Call , which had its world premiere at Sundance last night. The film is a leading example of the Celebrity Cluster Effect, whereby the presence of a few celebrities in the cast of an indie film draws out many more to work for cheap, in a sort of cinematic version of the pro bono project for a worthy cause. It is the film equivalent of Live Aid or “We Are the World,” and there’s seemingly an exemplar every year.

Last year, the best example was first-time director’s Galt Niederhoffer’s The Romantics . With Katie Holmes in the lead, the film attracted Anna Paquin, Elijah Wood, Candice Bergen, Adam Brody, Josh Duhamel and others to a sweet, relatively low-budget romance. * What the films have in common is not just multiple award winners in an ensemble, but also an apparent willingness to work with a new director out of an affection for her and the project.

Margin Call is, in the end, a good movie, with a finely structured first act premised on a single piece of information traveling up the hierarchy of the firm. The structures then softens, devolving into a series of conversations on what an economist would call labor-value theory how we measure the value of things. One character gives a speech on the social utility of his old job building bridges , in an implicit contrast to the building of complex financial derivatives.

It is an unnoticed irony that the actors in this film are actually better paid that most of the bankers whose utility the film questions. Before the screening, New York Times financial reporter Eric Dash asked Demi Moore whether she thought bankers or actors were more overpaid.  After a conspicuous pause she said “bankers,” and perhaps she had a point. Decry celebrity culture all you like, but consumers willingly and consciously spend money to see a star, as Margin Call shall probably prove.

Still from Margin Call © Sundance Film Festival. All rights reserved. 

* Correction, Jan. 26, 2011: This post originally referred to Elijah Wood as “Elijah Woods.”