We were in the midst of a heatwave here in the UK. Armed with popcorn and litres of Diet Coke, I binge-watched my way through Netflix. Why was I sitting in the dark watching films instead of frolicking in pub gardens, you ask? I was hard at work collating a comprehensive list of films and TV shows relevant to the comms industry. Hollywood has long been fascinated by the media and its ability to reveal or conceal the truth. Here are ten ‘must see’ movies for professionals working in communications.
Whether you’re a marketer, copywriter or PR – there’s something in here for everyone.
- Mad Men (2007)
“Just think about it deeply, then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face.”
Set in the smoke-filled labyrinth of 1960s Madison Avenue, Mad Men garnered 16 Emmy award wins and 116 nominations over its 8-year run. Elisabeth Moss takes a star turn as secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olsen, trailblazing her way into writing a tagline for a lipstick campaign on an all-male creative team. Explores perception versus reality, racial and sexual inequality, and the shift in public consciousness during a decade of fundamental social change.
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”
In this 1957 noir a newspaper journalist disapproves of his sister’s liaison with a jazz musician and exercises his power to put a stop to it. With atmospheric cinematography by James Wong Howe and Tony Curtis as the morally bankrupt press agent Sidney Falco, it’s definitely worth a watch. A meditation on the importance of using power for good, not evil. Evolving narratives is fundamental to PR but a sense of responsibility and empathy is vital too.
“Show us something real and free and beautiful.”
With all the hype surrounding Black Mirror Season 6, it’s worth revisiting this unsettling episode from Season 1. In Fifteen Million Merits, Daniel Kaluuya plays Bing, a man who lives life in one room – but not just any room. A box kitted out with floor to ceiling screens. Bing wakes to a technicolour mirage of adverts every waking minute and must pay a fine to hit mute.
Black Mirror continues to be so effective because it has all the scare-factor of science fiction but grounds itself in a future that is in many ways, already underway. In 2023, it’s easy to relate to the deluge of content with new apps like Threads launching practically every week.
- Citizen Kane (1941)
Seventy years of a man’s life. That’s a lot to try and get into a newsreel.
Fake news was around long before Twitter and Trump – and Orson Welles was well aware of it. Citizen Kane interrogates the toxic combination of power and close-mindedness, highlighting the danger in creating news for the sake of news. Journalists walk a fine line between truth and sensationalism, factual accuracy and entertainment value. The complex relationship between news outlet and audience is documented in all its intricacy here.
- The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
“Florals? For Spring? Groundbreaking.”
This film needs no introduction. It’s place in pop culture is cemented for all eternity. Two hundred years into the future we’ll still be using Miranda Priestly gifs as a means of communication. Absolutely no chance Miranda would have Chat GPT writing her articles. Domineering and vindictive, but you have to hand it to her: she values creative thought.
- All the President’s Men (1976)
“I guess I don’t have the taste for the jugular you guys have.”
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman portray Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in this political drama. Woodward and Bernstein were the investigative journalists who uncovered the Watergate Scandal in the 1970s, for which they received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The scandal, which resulted in Nixon becoming the first and only president to resign, put investigative journalism on the map and shook the foundation of American politics for good.
- Death of a Salesman (1951)
“The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.”
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman tells the story of Willy Loman, a washed-up car salesman single-mindedly chasing the American Dream. Miller’s play was originally subject to controversy for daring to suggest that the prosperity and idealism after World War Two, driven by consumerism, was a fallacy. Columbia Studios even censored the film adaption, deeming it too political.
A seismic shift has happened in the advertising world since Miller’s play premiered in the 1940s. Today’s consumers are more likely to make purchase decisions based on values, driven by principle rather than appearance. Read more on that here.
- How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days (2003)
“All’s fair in love and war.”
Kate Hudson plays a journalist who works at a tabloid magazine for women. She pitches her editor an article about how to seduce a man and then send him running in 10 days. Is it the most high-brow screenplay ever written? No! Is the plot believable? Absolutely not!
So why has it made it onto this list? I’ll set the scene. You’ve missed the bus to work. A van sluices you in water. You’ve left your lunch in the fridge and the deck you spent hours making has decided to erase itself (you definitely did hit save). You’re not going home to watch Tarkovsky.
Watch this instead!
- The Truman Show (1998)
“You never had a camera inside my head.”
Peter Weir’s iconic 1998 film cleverly comments on the brand to consumer relationship and the trappings of celebrity in this well-loved story. Truman, played by Jim Carrey, lives life unbeknownst to the fact that his every move is featured on live television. Over the course of the film, we watch Truman put together the pieces of the puzzle. He suspects something is amiss when his wife, Meryl, wants to discuss the benefits of the latest kitchen products more than she wants to talk about their life together.
- Thank You for Smoking (2005)
“That’s the beauty of argument: if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
Hollywood writers seem drawn to the underbelly of the PR industry because it provides great scriptwriting fodder. Jason Reitman’s satirical comedy is no exception. Diving into the world of big tobacco, it follows the story of Nick Naylor, a spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. Nick does everything in his power to counter anti-smoking campaigns, which proves tricky when he’s also striving to be a good role model for his son.
Honourable mention: The Social Network (2010)
“The internet’s not written in pencil, Mark. It’s written in ink.”
David Fincher’s film documenting the meteoric rise of Facebook feels like a page out of a dusty old history book now. It’s hard to believe it started so inanely as Facemash – a website for users to rate the attractiveness of their fellow students. Having evolved since then to Meta, the tech conglomerate valued at $791 billion dollars, it’s progression has been nothing short of staggering. A perceptive look at how human experience shapes and influences entrepreneurs.
For on-the-pulse updates on social platforms, check out our This Week in Social blog here.