“Dumb Money” is the kind of midbudget, formula-busting, thinking-person’s movie that isn’t supposed to get made anymore, much less receive a wide, studio-backed release in theaters.
It tells the bizarre true story of small investors — a nurse, college students, a YouTube personality known as Roaring Kitty — who created a Wall Street frenzy over the troubled video game retailer GameStop during the pandemic. Determined to teach professional investors a lesson, and hopefully get rich in the process, they pushed GameStop shares to a stratospheric level in early 2021, for a time putting the squeeze on sophisticated hedge funds that had bet that GameStop shares would fall.
The $30 million film, directed by Craig Gillespie (“Cruella”), contains withering depictions of real-life Wall Street figures like Kenneth C. Griffin, the Citadel titan; Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund manager and New York Mets owner; and Gabe Plotkin, whose hedge fund lost billions in the squeeze. In one colorful scene, Mr. Cohen, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, sits in a mansion snarfing a club sandwich and snorting with laughter on the phone with Mr. Plotkin, played by Seth Rogen.
“I honestly can’t tell if that’s you or Romeo,” Mr. Plotkin says, referring to Mr. Cohen’s pet pig. The camera cuts to the animal. Mr. Cohen gleefully tosses deli meat on the carpet for it to eat.
In a twist that makes “Dumb Money” even more unusual, the film was financed and produced by Teddy Schwarzman, whose father, Stephen A. Schwarzman, is also a Wall Street superpower and the chief executive of Blackstone, the private equity behemoth that has more than $1 trillion under management. Without Teddy Schwarzman’s last-minute investment — he stepped in with financing after Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer balked — “Dumb Money” would not exist, according to Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum, former Wall Street Journal reporters who wrote the screenplay and served as executive producers.
“When no one else believed in this film, Teddy came in pretty heroically,” Ms. Blum said.
The “Dumb Money” poster depicts stacks of cash styled to look like an obscene hand gesture, along with the words “Dear Wall Street.” What does Mr. Schwarzman’s father think about this? Moreover, what do the businessmen caricatured in the film think?
“I’m very, very curious as to what they’ll say,” said Thomas E. Rothman, chairman of Sony’s motion picture group, which will premiere the R-rated “Dumb Money” on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I know the movie was meticulously researched.” (Translation: Sony’s lawyers are ready.)
Stephen Schwarzman declined to comment. So did Mr. Griffin and Mr. Cohen. Mr. Plotkin did not respond to queries.
In 2011, Teddy Schwarzman, 44, founded a film company that has since delivered art house hits like “The Imitation Game,” which collected $234 million worldwide in 2014 and was nominated for eight Oscars. (The movie won for Graham Moore’s screenplay.) In an interview, Mr. Schwarzman insisted he had no particular desire to make Wall Street look bad.
“It’s never about my thoughts and my feelings,” Mr. Schwarzman said of the films he made. “It’s about the material: What is this saying and how effective is it in what it’s trying to do? Is this a piece of content that can stand out in the genre that it’s in and do something novel and do something special?”
“‘Dumb Money’ is a comedic and thrilling examination of what’s going on in our Main Street versus Wall Street world,” he added.
Asked if his father or any other Wall Street figure had reached out to him to complain about “Dumb Money,” directly or indirectly, Mr. Schwarzman shook his head no.
Sony, which bought distribution rights to “Dumb Money” from Mr. Schwarzman, plans a slow theatrical rollout for the film starting next Friday. Sony expects “Dumb Money” to play on at least 2,500 screens in the United States and Canada by Sept. 29. A release of that size typically requires a marketing campaign costing more than $20 million. (Sony declined to say how much it will spend.)
It’s a big gamble. “The Big Short,” the 2015 film about the greedy architects of the 2008 financial crisis, rode five Oscar nominations to $133 million in global ticket sales. (It cost about $28 million to make.) Since then, however, in part because of the pandemic, audiences have grown accustomed to streaming these kinds of films at home, leaving theaters to play mostly big-budget franchise spectacles.
“Originality works in theaters when it has cultural urgency, and there’s a tremendous amount in this story that speaks to the particular cultural moment that we’re in — the explosion of discontent,” Mr. Rothman, the Sony executive, said.
The cast includes Paul Dano, America Ferrera, Pete Davidson, Anthony Ramos and Shailene Woodley. Normally, a cast like this would translate into promotional appearances in settings like “Saturday Night Live,” talk shows and social media platforms.
But Hollywood actors are on strike. Their union has banned publicity efforts for virtually all completed films until the stalemate is resolved, and no talks have been scheduled. (Writers are also on strike, with no end in sight. It is not lost on the screenwriters that “Dumb Money,” about a populist uprising, is coming out when they have been walking picket lines.)
Familiarity with the GameStop investing saga or even the basics of high finance is not a prerequisite for watching “Dumb Money.” The movie unfolds as a relatively simple David-and-Goliath story — set to a sometimes profane hip-hop and rock soundtrack, with actual Reddit threads, TikTok memes and TV news footage occasionally peppering the screen in unconventional ways.
“To quote the great Billy Friedkin, we wanted the movie to feel like a bat out of hell,” said Ms. Angelo, the co-writer, referring to the famed director, who died last month.
Mr. Gillespie, the director, is known for quirky, comedic films (“Lars and the Real Girl,” 2007) with exuberant pacing (“I, Tonya,” 2017) that sometimes teeter toward mockumentary. “Dumb Money” was a unique challenge, he said, because the story is told through a large number of characters, many of whom have lives that never intersect.
“We have 12 different characters plus a complicated backdrop,” he said. “The priority was always to strip it back and get to the core of the emotion, which is this frustration and outright outrage at the disparity of wealth that’s going on in this country.”
The GameStop surge was driven, in part, by boredom. Working at home or being unemployed during the pandemic, neophyte investors opened brokerage accounts and got caught up in endless online hype around certain stocks.
Mr. Gillespie’s son Miles was one of the them. “He made like 50 times his investment,” Mr. Gillespie said of his son’s GameStop bet. “He actually timed it perfectly.”
Excited, Mr. Gillespie then put money into the company — just in time for the stock to crash. “My timing was perfectly wrong,” he said. Mr. Gillespie declined to say how much he lost. “The point is that I was emotionally invested in this story,” he said.
“Dumb Money” got its start in January 2021 when the producer Aaron Ryder (“Arrival”) was twiddling his thumbs during a 14-day pandemic quarantine in Canada. He had come across conversations on Reddit about GameStop, and then his phone rang. It was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which was owned by Anchorage Capital, a New York investment firm led by Kevin Ulrich. Mr. Ulrich also served as MGM’s chairman.
“He thought the GameStop story would make a cool movie,” Mr. Ryder recalled.
Mr. Ryder sprang into action. Through a contact, he had heard that Ben Mezrich, who wrote the Facebook origin book that served as source material for the film “The Social Network,” was working on a book proposal about the GameStop phenomenon.
“I kind of just begged and pleaded and maybe lied a little bit to try to get a hold of this thing,” Mr. Ryder said. He succeeded, and started to put together a creative team, including Ms. Angelo and Ms. Blum, who ultimately based their screenplay on Mr. Mezrich’s book “The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees.”
In spring 2021, however, Anchorage sold MGM to Amazon, and “Dumb Money” was suddenly in limbo. “The project ended up being a bit of an orphan that nobody wanted to own,” Mr. Schwarzman said.
At the time, “Dumb Money” was expected to cost as much as $40 million to make. Mr. Ryder and Mr. Schwarzman whittled down the budget and secured tax rebates from New Jersey, where much of the 31-day shoot would take place.
Mr. Schwarzman then sold certain distribution rights to Sony for an estimated $16 million. His company, Black Bear Pictures, sold additional rights to overseas distributors, putting the film on solid financial ground before it even arrives in theaters.
The irony is that Mr. Schwarzman is what Hollywood has long called “dumb money,” an affluent, often gullible outsider bitten by the movie bug. But he may get the last laugh. As he told The Wall Street Journal in 2013, for an article about Hollywood-bound heirs to family fortunes, “The idea is for dumb money to be smarter.”