Business

BORING NO MORE

Corporate scandals are turning accountants into big-screen bad guys

JOHN INTINI December 11 2006
Business

BORING NO MORE

Corporate scandals are turning accountants into big-screen bad guys

JOHN INTINI December 11 2006

BORING NO MORE

Business

Corporate scandals are turning accountants into big-screen bad guys

JOHN INTINI

“You don’t see too many naked accountants in movies,” laughs Tony Dimnik, a business professor at Queen’s University. Dimnik should know. Since the early ’90s, he and Sandra Felton, a business professor at Brock University, have watched more than 300 films featuring accountants— dating back to Grand Hotel in 1932. If there’s one constant in all that work, it’s that accountants usually have sex off-screen.

Their study, recently published in the journal ofAccounting, Organizationsand Society, found that portrayals of accountants was richer than most people think—from the stereotypical bland plodders stuck in a dull job to those who prove rather heroic despite spending their days crunching numbers.

But Dimnik and Felton’s study dealt only with films released up until 2000. Since Enron’s much-publicized collapse in 2001, and the resulting crackdown on white-collar crime, there has been a dramatic shift in public perceptions of the accounting profession. Suddenly, the notion of the cold, numberobsessed villain (also one of Dimnik and Felton’s categories) doesn’t seem as far-fetched. And the sight of a math whiz in prison garb doesn’t require much of a leap of imagination. “Every post-Enron movie that I have seen, the accountant starts off either in jail or about to go to jail,” Dimnik says. “They start as fallen angels and often are redeemed.”

Take Jim Carrey’s 2005 film, Fun with Dick and jane, for example. In the film, an update of the 1977 movie with the same title starring Jane Fonda, Carrey plays an executive who loses almost everything after the com-

pany he works for is found to be using fraudulent accounting practices. Then there’s Bad Santa (2003), in which the kid’s father is an accountant in prison. “The first time we see him, he’s wearing an orange jumpsuit.” Dimnik anticipates many more “bad” accountants in the next few years as screenplays being written now—and influenced by real-life corporate scandals—go into production. “Moviemakers choose stereotypes because they’re a shorthand,” says Dimnik. “Enron is a good shorthand for everything that was wrong with business.” And accounting skill, it seems, is a dead giveaway for a devious mind. Dimnik and Felton have found that smart, competent accountants in movies are more likely to be dishonest than the happy, less-skilled ones. In film, says Dimnik, “beware the brilliant accountant.”

All that may seem innocuous enough. But Dimnik says that films can not only further entrench stereotypes, but create them as well.

THE SIGHT OF A MATH WHIZ IN PRISON GARB DOESN’T REQUIRE MUCH OF A LEAP OF IMAGINATION

“In many movies, the profession, not the character, is negatively portrayed as boring and in some cases mindless,” he says. More worrisome to those in the profession is the spreading portrayal of accountants as villains. “We’re more concerned about protecting our reputation on that than worrying about someone thinking that working in an accountant office isn’t as good as skydiving,” says Jim Smith, an Edmonton-based accountant. In an effort to rebuild the industry’s reputation post-Enron, accounting associations and the big firms have gone to great lengths to improve business practices and punish ethical breaches. For most accountants, the objective is simple: they just want to go back to the days of being thought of as dull. M