McDonald’s is an American institution for good or for ill. You can make a case for or against the company’s food, its labor practices and other aspects of its operations, but you can’t dispute it being a powerful force in American culture and society.
Drive along any interstate in this country and you’re likely to see multiple signs informing you of the next - or next three - exit where you’ll be able to enjoy a McDonald’s burger, fries and shake. And the meal you get in Duluth will be identical to the one you get in Atlanta, with consistency and speed being the key to the company’s ubiquity and popularity.
The story of how that ubiquity and popularity came into being is being told in part in the new release, The Founder. The movie tells the story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the man whose face and story can be found in the lobbies of many McDonald’s restaurants and who is celebrated as the creator of the fast-food empire. But Kroc, as the movie shows, may not have actually come up with the idea himself. Instead it was the brainchild of Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), who had the idea for burgers done in 30 seconds. Kroc, a struggling milkshake machine salesman, came upon their restaurant and became a partner, pushing the two into franchising the name and concept across the nation. The brothers soon find themselves battling Kroc for control and ultimately losing, with Kroc spinning the narrative that he was the founder of the enterprise.
This is hardly the first time Hollywood has told the story of a difficult man who changed the world through a bit of hard work, a bit of showmanship and a bit of self-aggrandizement. It’s not even the first time in the last decade that a movie along these lines has told the real-life story of such a founder.
These kinds of stories can’t be pleasant for the companies and people involved. They present just as much of a reputation crisis moment as any breaking news report or hard-hitting documentary, even though they come under the banner of Hollywood’s entertainment machine. But it’s not just a one-time hit, as the company has to deal with the eventual release but also the six- to 12-month publicity cycle that leads up to it. That necessitates a long-term strategy that has to walk the line between defending the reputation of the company and its principal executives and not protesting too much, lest a minor story become major by virtue of paying outsized attention to it.
Let’s look at a couple of movies that have dramatized the reality behind some of our most well-known products and institutions.
The Movie: The Social Network (2010)
How it was sold: The marketing for the movie, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, offers a fascinating look back at the Facebook of 2010, when it was still about friends and family sharing single photos or updates with other friends and family. While there are nods in the first trailer particularly to Facebook’s connective functionality in order to make the movie seem relevant, most of it is focused instead on Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) using the nascent social network to become part of the very elite social groups he feels he’s been excluded from. It’s less about the founding of Facebook and more about Zuckerberg’s making himself someone important, not to mention wealthy.
The reaction: It’s imperative to put this in the context of when the movie was released and Facebook’s place in the world at that time. It was big, but not the global behemoth it is now. So it’s inaccurate to say this massively changed anyone’s view of the network or changed their usage of it, at least not on any sort of large scale. This despite the fact that few people in the movie come off well at all. Zuckerberg went on a charm offensive while those involved in the movie were promoting it to characterize the events depicted in it as more or less completely fictional, a narrative the other real people also adopted. Ultimately no substantive reputational damage was done to anyone. Zuckerberg continues to increase his influence and Facebook continues to reach like a hydra across the globe, gobbling up users and ad revenue.
The Movie: Steve Jobs (2015) and others
How it was sold: Again the focus was squarely on the man, Jobs, and not so much on the company. Everything about the campaign told us this was going to be a look at the reported genius of the man who founded Apple, who gave us the iPod and so much more. And again, this was written by Aaron Sorkin, featuring his unique style of dialogue that’s on display throughout the campaign. Understandably there’s lots of Apple products on display in the campaign since the movie itself focuses on the introduction of three products, beginning with the Macintosh and ending with the iMac. The campaign doesn’t lay that structure out, instead focusing on selling the audience on the notion of seeing the bristly personality of the title character on display as he interacts with those around him. It’s promising a look at the man who brought so many machines into our daily lives.
The reaction: While the movie didn’t light the box-office on fire - it barely made its budget back - it did garner quite a bit of positive reception from critics, particularly for the performances by Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Kate Winslet as his long-time personal assistant. It came out at an interesting time for Apple, which was kind of struggling in terms of public perception due to lagging iPad sales and a general sense that under new leader Tim Cook it was stagnating creatively. So it’s not so much that the movie hurt the reputation of the company as much as it became part of the narrative that Apple wasn’t what it was at the height of Jobs’ influence and power. That can’t have helped things, but while co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen) was generally positive about the story and the movie, he also made it clear that the conversations depicted in it were complete fiction and never happened in reality. Meanwhile, the notoriously tight-lipped company said little publicly, choosing to maintain its studied silence instead of adding any fuel to the fire.
All of these movies provide different, though somewhat similar, looks at how some of the companies we encounter most everyday and which have become integral parts of the world around us came into being. It’s easy to imagine a string of Powerpoint-driven meetings related to the upcoming releases being held in the offices of Facebook, Apple and McDonald’s, lead by corporate communications staffs tasked with maintaining the positive consumer sentiment around the companies.
The Founder seems like it will be a more traditional biopic compared to the two Sorkin-penned movies, which aim for high art and take somewhat unconventional approaches to the material. While McDonald’s hasn’t come out with an official statement or reaction to the movie, it’s safe to say that as it doesn’t exactly line up with the official corporate narrative (which itself has evolved over the years). The fast food giant likely won’t be sponsoring employee screenings anytime soon.
Chris Thilk is a writer and consulant. He tweets @ChrisThilk