When one thinks of commercial real estate, rarely do movies (about the industry) come to mind. But sometimes, there’s a great documentary that sheds a light on the CRE industry. Here are a handful of CRE-based documentaries, TV shows and feature films about the rise and fall of realtors, historic tragedies around pieces of property and more.
This documentary traces the rise and fall of the coworking phenomenon, showing how Adam Neumann founded WeWork back in 2010, tracing the rise and fall of a $50B valued business. It’s available to watch on Hulu, to see how one of the biggest VC dramas in recent history changed the game. Director Jed Rothstein calls it a “cautionary tale” when it comes to the financial system, and how the system imploded.
The film frames Neumann as a cult leader who had a messy leadership style, and hated criticism, before WeWork’s IPO crashed (it took a bailout from SoftBank). And really, what can be learned here?
Watch how the company was built in the ashes of the stock market crash of 2008, where many finance experts saw tech as the guiding light into the 2010s, which is referred to here as the “techno-optimism” era. Neumann was at the core of this movement, so naturally, people trusted him. Firms like Regus created “hotdesk” culture around coworking, but WeWork made it cool, touting their “we not me” slogan, championing community, above all, for entrepreneurs and small businesses, as well as freelancers.
The best part of this documentary is the commentary from people who knew Neumann and were in his close circle, admitting to how crazy the whole company really was from the inside. Also see how outsiders break it down, whether it’s journalists or lawyers and other pundits.
This HBO Max documentary looks at one theme park, called “lawless” by many, and the repercussions for the safety of the park. According to experts in this documentary, it had “no rules,” apparently, deemed an “ill-conceived death trap.” This is the first documentary to look into New Jersey’s “Action Park,” which was the most coveted theme park in the region, during the nostalgic 1980s. With the legal lessons learned here (and the insurance loopholes), many experts in real estate claim that a place like Action Park will never exist again, even though it had incredible hype. Watch interviews with investigative journalists, past park attendees and the former employees to learn what it was really like behind the big gates for a theme park that changed the game.
This independent documentary is available to watch in full on YouTube. It follows the life of Sam Zell, a former lawyer turned realtor who started out as a property manager, then worked to build the largest real estate portfolio in America. Today, he is worth over 5 billion. The documentary traces his investing, deals and success throughout the years, since founding Equity Group Investments, a private investment firm, in 1968.
For New York nerds, this one is a must-watch. This real estate documentary traces the lives of some of New York City’s most prolific real estate executives, offering interviews that shed light on their insight. As a three-part docu-series, it covers the tragedy and recovery of devastating events—like the attacks at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Financial Crisis of 2008, and Hurricane Sandy. In all of these tragedies, what does it mean for the real estate community?
The executives explain what life was like during each tragedy, the loss, heartbreak and rebounding businesses and lives after each event. This documentary not only has real estate execs in front of the screen, but behind it, too, as it was produced, filmed, and created by Larry Silverstein, the former owner of the Twin Towers, who rebuilt the World Trade Center after the 2001 attacks, and his team explain how they “managed to overcome it all,” as the film synopsis explains.
This 2020 documentary looks at the long history of Honest Ed’s department store, which once lived on a busy intersection in Toronto, Canada, and ran from 1948 to 2016. This discount retail superstore to was a cultural mainstay for locals, and it had a lot of circus-like additions such as flashing lights on its 24-hour sign, old, hand-painted signage around the maze-like store, and full-sized cardboard look-alikes of owner Ed Mirvish himself, who was somewhat of a ringleader.
The store grossed roughly $14 million a year in the 1960s. Mirvish wasn’t just a retail giant, he bought real estate around his department store, and offered affordable commercial and residential real estate for tenants, until he died in 2007. His success story leaves an example for others to follow.
Directed by Lulu Wei, locals recall how the block of Bloor and Bathurst Streets changed over the course of 70 years, thanks to Mirvish. This film won the Audience Award at the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto in 2020. The thematic underpinning in the documentary is that it aims to answer the question: “Are we building a neighborhood, or are we just building buildings?”
This Netflix documentary, which was released in 2016, is a fictional story about the birth of a burger business, modeled after the McDonald’s empire. Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, who took a generic family burger brand and brought it to new heights with his business, and real estate savviness. The real Kroc died in 1984, worth $200 million.
As he says in the film: “You’re not in the burger business, you’re in the real estate business.” He learns in the film that being a tenant is not as good as being a landlord, obviously.
Here’s another film that looks at Ground Zero in the years that followed 9/11. This documentary was made in 2012 by director Richard Hankin and traces the complex, tiring and exhaustive rebuilding of the World Trade Center, which the director calls a “complex urban renewal project.” Everyone had an opinion, and many conflicting political issues arose, mainly around sympathy for the victims’ families, and lives that were lost, mixed with opportunistic gain and finances for real estate.
The project took a total of 12 years and cost over $20 billion to rebuild. That’s not to mention the challenges of engineering, working with 19 government agencies, and catering to the needs of developers, architects, insurers and local residents. This is the quintessential inside story of how one historic project came to be. It’s tense, there’s a lot of arguments at public meetings, emotions run high and people generally are just trying to do what’s best for the general interest. A true drama, with a bit of New York egoism.
An old feature film with an all-star cast that sheds light into the inner workings of when realtors turn corrupt. This film is adapted from a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by David Mamet. The story follows a group of Chicago real estate salesmen who turn to crime, working as con artists who hunt for “A-B-C” meaning “Always Be Closing,” even if its promoting a lie when closing a deal on a plot of undesirable, or sub-standard real estate. Starring Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin, it’s a worst case, exaggerated scenario of the dark side of real estate, fictionalized. It’s still entertaining and worth watching.