From Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life to the Bradys’ nemesis in The Brady Bunch Movie, the real-estate developer is a typical foil for plucky heroes-next-door.
A reliable rule of thumb: In Hollywood, the developer is never the hero.
The developer-as-villain has a long and distinguished history in popular films. Director Frank Capra, a pioneer in establishing the trope, used it twice, in You Can’t Take it With You (1938), which hinges on a rapacious businessman’s efforts to snatch a home from a reluctant seller, and most famously in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the holiday classic that airs Sunday night on NBC.
In it, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) sacrifices his dreams to ensure the survival of the savings and loan that he inherited from his father. He stands up to slumlord Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the richest man in Bedford Falls, who has bought up most of the other businesses in the area and owns the majority of the rental housing stock. Mr. Potter resents George’s competition (while also somehow serving on the board of his savings and loan).
George, too, is a developer: He builds tidy little suburban homes in “Bailey Park,” his subdivision for folks who wouldn’t have qualified for mortgages at Potter’s bank. (Fun fact: The home he sells to Mr. Martini in the film, a 3-bedroom in La Canada Flintridge, is now worth $1.5 million, according to Zillow.) Potter, however, would prefer to have the working class of Bedford Falls renting from him forever.
Technically, one could argue that It’s a Wonderful Life also makes a case for the role of the benevolent developer. But George Bailey, for all his other virtues, isn’t much of a businessperson. His bank needs to be bailed out twice over the course of the film. The holiday lesson here: If you want to make money, you need to be Mr. Potter.
In the wake of It’s a Wonderful Life, Hollywood unleashed a grim parade of evil developers. They’re typically seen in a few basic scenarios:
A character is called out as a developer to show the audience that he is unsavory (see Beetlejuice, Caddyshack, Summer Rental).
A beloved building/piece of land/town will be destroyed by an evil developer if the heroes can’t come up with a large amount of money. The details are usually sparse. (The Goonies is the purest example of this genre, but many others, such as The Brady Bunch Movie, follow a similar formula).
The evil developer has a plot to increase the value of an investment, which needs to be stopped by the heroes. (Lex Luthor is the plotter in Superman.)
The heyday of the evil developer movie was the 1980s. This was the era of the yuppie, when factories closed and Donald Trump thrived. It was also a time of real-life economic swings, from the high inflation and interest rates of the early 1980s—followed by a recession—to the Savings and Loan Crisis of the last part of the decade.
Like Frank Capra before him, filmmaker Steven Spielberg was particularly drawn to using evil developers as villains, and the populist fables he produced in the 1980s were full of them. In the horror flick Poltergeist (1982), an exceptionally evil developer builds an Orange County planned community over a cemetery without removing the corpses, with disastrous results. The Goonies (1985) made heroes out of young people searching for pirate treasure to save their quaint Oregon neighborhood from being turned into a golf course. In Batteries Not Included (1987), the heavy is Mr. Lacey, an over-the-top bad guy who relies on a henchman named Carlos to drive people out of their East Village apartments so he can build a series of high rises called Lacey Plaza.
The diverse cast of occupants—the elderly white couple that owns a ground-floor restaurant, a 30something artist, a Spanish-speaking pregnant woman, and the building’s super, a black ex-boxer who speaks only in advertising catchphrases—are shown as people with kind hearts who are standing up to “the man.” Then miniature robotic aliens come to their rescue and fix up the building.
It’s possible to look at this plot critically and decide that the old couple, who appear to own the building, are essentially slumlords who rely on the unpaid labor of aliens to do a major value-add to their investment property. The couple will be able to take advantage of the alien intervention to raise rents long-term or sell at an inflated price, inevitably leading to gentrification and the types of changes they were shown to be symbolically resisting. Had there been a recent sequel to Batteries Not Included, I imagine the ground-floor restaurant would have been a pour-over coffee bar lined in reclaimed wood and lit by the soft glow of Apple products.
But there’s at least one real-estate developer plot that Hollywood seems to have so far ignored, the one that’s often playing out real-life today: Wealthy NIMBY property owners fight development to “save their neighborhood,” when in reality they are trying to keep out low-income renters from accessing their exclusive school district. Perhaps this scenario isn’t quite as satisfying as watching a bunch of scrappy kids save their house by finding a pirate ship hidden in a cave.
If you feel like booing, or cheering, evil developers, here’s a not-exhaustive list of films and TV shows to watch this holiday season. (Credit to the blog Evil Developer Movies for a number of selections I hadn’t thought of on my own.)
You Can’t Take It With You (1938): A banker with a near-monopoly in the munitions business sets out to buy up all the property around a competitor’s plant to put him out of business. The owner’s son falls in love with the daughter of the only family that holds out and refuses to sell their home.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): Good developer George Bailey battles evil developer Mr. Potter over affordable housing and contemplates what would have happened if he’d never been born.
“Scooby-Doo” (1969 to 1986): In this durable cartoon franchise, a bunch of teens and their dog foil an evil real-estate speculator who masquerades as a ghost in nearly every episode.
Herbie Rides Again (1974): This movie about a lovable, anthropomorphic VW Beetle features Helen Hayes as an old lady resisting the plans of a developer (Keenan Wynn) who wants to build “Hawk Plaza,” a shopping center in San Francisco crowned by an twin-towers-like skyscraper.
Superman (1978): Lex Luthor plots to cash in on his desert property holdings by sinking California, thus increasing the value of his land when it becomes the new West Coast.
Caddyshack (1980): A nouveau-riche developer has an interest in buying the golf course and turning it into condos.
Poltergeist (1982): A good developer who works for a very bad developer is menaced by angry spirits when he moves his family into a subdivision built on top of a cemetery.
Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984): A group of breakdancers tries to save a community center threatened by a developer who wants to build a shopping mall.
The Goonies (1985): Desperate to save their home from a developer, brothers compete with a group of bad guys to find lost pirate treasure in order to save it.
Summer Rental (1985): An overworked air traffic controller (John Candy) and his family compete with a real-estate mogul in a sailing race to avoid being kicked out of their summer rental.
One Crazy Summer (1986): A teenage cartoonist and his friends work to save a new friend’s family property from developers.
Batteries Not Included (1987): Elderly East Village property owners are assisted by small space aliens in fending off developers who want to tear down the building.
Ernest Goes to Camp (1987): Ernest needs to save the summer camp from being turned into a strip mine.
Beetlejuice (1988): A real-estate developer moves his wife and Goth teen daughter into a run-down house and gives it a contemporary renovation, but must contend with the highly sympathetic recently deceased former occupants. Everyone makes up in the end.
Medicine Man (1992): Road development threatens a village in the Amazon where a cure for cancer may be discovered.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992): Real-estate salesmen get motivated when the head office promises to fire all but two employees. Unethical behavior ensues.
The Brady Bunch Movie (1995): An evil developer is going to take the Bradys’ home if they can’t come up with $20,000. Dad Mike Brady can’t make enough money as an architect, so the kids enter a talent contest.
The Education of Allison Tate (1986): Native Americans kidnap the daughter (Allison) of a developer who seized their land. Allison begins to sympathize with her captors and fights with them against her father.
Dirty Work (1998): The protagonists start a revenge-for-hire business and get tricked by a developer into vandalizing a building that isn’t his, so he can buy it cheap, evict the tenants, and build a parking lot for his new (highly profitable?) opera house.
Barbershop 2: Back in Business (2002): Gentrification threatens the barbershop (along with a chain barbershop opening on the same street).
Big Stan (2007): A real-estate con artist goes to prison, where he helps the warden with a plan to get the prison shut down and sell the land. But he has second thoughts and blows his parole hearing to stay and help his incarcerated friends.
Up (2009): An old man holding out against rampant development in his neighborhood flees by attaching balloons to his house and floating away.
Show Me a Hero (2015): Here’s a novel modern twist: Oscar Isaac plays a NIMBY mayor turned doomed desegregationist in David Simon’s HBO miniseries about the fair housing battles of Yonkers, New York in the 1980s.