Moviegoers watching The Big Short relive the painful emotions associated with the 2008 economic meltdown. They also come away with a clearer understanding of the complicated financial instruments, relationships between banks, mortgage brokers, the media and ratings agencies and wide ranging circumstances that led to the collapse.
Viewers were drawn in by an outstanding ensemble and individual performances, as well as the creative ways the film clarifies otherwise dry concepts. PRs can use these techniques to make technical topics more dynamic, especially now with the availability of interactive press releases and social media platforms.
Here’s an outline of specific methods The Big Short’s filmmakers utilized. If you’ve already read the reviews, then no spoiler alert is needed. We all know the unfortunate outcome anyway.
1. Celebrity cameos
The movie incorporates a number of celebrities outside the realm of the financial industry to explain the jargon in detail, such as Selena Gomez and Australian actress Margot Robbie. These appearances serve as brief breaks from the intensity of the storyline.
2. Clever analogies
The film cuts away to chef and travel guru Anthony Bourdain standing in a kitchen saying that the reselling of baskets of lower quality financial products is like a restaurant using older fish in stews the next day. The result is that more of the audience gets the drift.
3. Selective humor
There was nothing funny about the economy tanking, but director and co-writer Adam McKay has a background in comedy. So he injected humor as an escape from the doom and gloom. A bubble bath scene where an outside character talks directly to the camera and candidly critiques the subprime mortgage bond market was particularly amusing.
A few well chosen props, like a shaky tower of wooden building blocks and the recurring use of statistics on a dry erase board, greatly helped to illustrate what was happening to the financial industry during that time period.
5. Acronyms spelled out
Financial terms like CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) were defined and highlighted on the screen while the film proceeded. This didn’t allow any room for misinterpretation, and no one was left in the dark.
6. Multiple settings
Wall Street served as the main backdrop for the film and is at the center of the action. But since some of the main players lived elsewhere, the film shifts to other parts of the country. Key scenes took place in Florida, California, Colorado and Las Vegas, serving not only as a change of venue, but also showing the broad reach of the pending crisis nationwide.
7. Compelling music
The movie uses songs from heavy metal bands to highlight the dramatic plot twists and turns. One of the memorable selections towards the end: Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks.
The film credits also mention that questionable financial instruments are being repackaged for customers today, leaving moviegoers to pause and bringing the issue back to the present time.
The Big Short has been nominated for multiple Golden Globes, including best motion picture: musical or comedy. It’s a tough call whether the movie will win at this Sunday’s awards show, since it’s up against Trainwreck and Joy, among others. But if there was a prize for clarity, this film would be the clear favorite.