If you've seen "M:i-2," you already know which screenplay moment was my favorite. No, not the umpteenth rubber face-mask gag. I'm talking about the scene where the evil movie villain details his ransom for the fate of humanity.
Does Scottish bio-terrorist Sean Ambrose simply call for a prodigious pile of cash? Of course not -- how old-school 007-boring that would be. After Dr. Evil's inept demand for "$1 million," no self-respecting spy-flick heavy would crave mere currency. Mr. Bad Guy 2000 insists on something much more darkly powerful: He requires stock options.
It makes for an unintentionally hilarious beat. In money-mad Manhattan, crowds laughed at (not with) the wicked Ambrose's revelation that the real object of his maniacal lusts is a package of equity derivatives. Sure, he'll take a few million bucks in a Swiss account -- but only as a way of paying for Biocyte options, whose value will skyrocket once he tells the markets about A) a deadly new virus and B) the Biocyte drug that will cure it.
If this twist in his fiendish plot is something of a reach, it's a highly calculated one. When Paramount approved "M:i-2's" script, it assumed the intended audience (which is to say pretty much everyone in the world) understands stock options to be the ultimate way of getting rich quick -- even more effective than pure old-fashioned theft -- and that insider trading is one of the few latter-day cardinal sins.
In case any cineplex groundlings are hazy on the details, Ambrose even gives his CEO-victim a nice, succinct treatise on the power of leverage.
Options, he explains, let you buy stock on the cheap; then, when the stock rises on good news, you can sell it for much more money -- "a billion dollars," drools the Scot -- as if the portly pharmaceutical exec hadn't planned his whole life around the concept.
Until a few years ago, stock options were of interest almost exclusively to top corporate brass and the bankers who loved them. Some high-tech engineering talent began receiving them at the dawn of the chip industry in the late 1960s; by the early '90s, reports of option-earning millionaires at Microsoft and Intel appeared in the popular press. Netscape's unprecedented 1995 post-IPO run-up and endless stories of overnight wealth triggered the proliferation of equity into every level of the U.S. workforce. Just ask your UPS delivery person, who's probably done very well with the options he or she got in last year's multibillion-dollar IPO.
Sexy, sexy equity: For the first post-'90s summer blockbuster, just what the script doctor ordered. "M:i-2's" dabbling in personal finance caps a trend we've seen developing for the past decade. CNBC, whose daytime ratings are up 250 percent since 1995, has become the TV station of choice at bars and beauty parlors nationwide. Mike Doonesbury got into the act on the comics pages with an IPO-bound tech start-up, and when Tony Soprano wanted to make some more moolah this past season, he muscled his way into the brokerage business. Silicon Valley author Po Bronson has been contracted to turn his 1999 book, "The Nudist on the Late Shift" -- a tale of new economy culture that revolves almost entirely around options -- into a film script, and he's also got a network TV series about Bay Area options babies under development.
But none of these has worldwide demographic reach like a summer movie blockbuster. When one hits (and "M:i-2" has definitely hit, having grossed $130 million after two weekends), a movie is one of the best ways to gauge the mass mind-set. So what was once an obscure financial instrument to corporate execs (and the bankers who love them) has assumed its place in the pop pantheon. When we have "M:i-2's" arch-villain fixating on stock options as a way of punching up an action flick's story line, Wall Street culture truly has become mass culture.
That makes a financial wonk's heart lift. Just ponder the possibilities for "M:i-3's" plot: A scurrilous Swede plans currency-arbitrage terrorism -- he'll devalue the French franc to postwar lows and make billions! Better still: A twisted Welsh securities analyst kidnaps the 13-year-old daughter of Goldman Sachs' chairman, then demands that Daddy's firm float him a bond issue with a coupon 150 basis points under prime. He'll make billions!! No, wait: A diabolical Kiwi hacker with an unstoppable e-mail virus forces the entire population of Santa Clara County, Calif., to buy 1,000 shares of his worthless IPO -- and hold them for two years. He'll make billions!!!
Alternately, though, the high-profile role of options in "M:i-2" may be a sign that the market for market obsession has topped. Ambrose's ploy will seem so dated in a couple of years, so obviously Bubble-y. That's something pop culture and Wall Street have long had in common: They're cyclical and fickle. In the movies and in the markets, what's hot this summer usually cools by the next quarter.