Margin Call is a 2011 American independent drama film written and directed by J. C. Chandor. The principal story takes place over a 24-hour period at a large Wall Street investment bank during the initial stages of the financial crisis of 2007–08. In focus are the actions taken by a group of employees during the subsequent financial collapse. The ensemble cast features Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci.
The film was a co-production between the motion picture studios of Before the Door Pictures, Benaroya Pictures, Washington Square Films, Margin Call Productions, Sakonnet Capital Partners, and Untitled Entertainment. Theatrically, it was commercially distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. Margin Call explores capitalism, greed and investment fraud. Following its wide release in theaters, the film garnered award nominations for its production merits from the Detroit Film Critics Society, along with several separate nominations for its screenplay and direction from recognized award organizations, including the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The score was orchestrated by musician Nathan Larson.
The film made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2011 and opened in theaters nationwide in the United States on October 21, 2011, grossing $5,354,039 in domestic ticket receipts. It was screened at 199 theaters during its widest release in cinemas. It earned an additional $14,150,000 in business through international release to top out at a combined $19,504,039 in gross revenue. Preceding its initial screening to the public, Margin Call was generally met with positive critical reviews. The DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film were released in the United States on December 20, 2011.
An unnamed Wall Street firm begins a mass layoff on the trading floor during a normal business day. Among those let go is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), head of risk management. Dale attempts to contact his former employer to look into his most recent and unfinished project, but an uninterested human resources staff tells him to leave immediately. While boarding the elevator he meets one of his underlings, risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and gives him a USB drive-stick to look at with vague instructions to “be careful.”
Sullivan works late that night to finish Dale’s project, and discovers that current volatility in the firm's portfolio of mortgage-backed securities will soon exceed the historical volatility levels of the positions. Because of excessive leverage, if the firm's assets decrease by 25%, the loss will be greater than the value of the firm itself and the firm will go bankrupt. Sullivan and junior analyst Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) tell their desk head Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) about the situation. Emerson alerts floor head Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who also returns to the office. They attempt to contact Dale, but his company phone has been shut off and he hasn’t returned home yet.
These employees remain at the firm for a series of meetings throughout the night with senior executives, including division head Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), chief risk management officer Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), and finally CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Cohen's plan is for the firm to quickly sell all of the toxic assets before the market learns of their worthlessness, thereby limiting the firm's exposure, a course favored by Tuld. Rogers protests that dumping the firm's toxic assets will spread the risk throughout the financial sector and destroy the firm's relationships with its counterparties. He also warns Cohen that their customers will quickly learn of the firm's plans, once they realize that the firm is only selling the toxic securities.
They finally locate Dale and Will is able to convince him to return to the office for the day, letting him know that the firm will fight him on his severance and other benefits unless he agrees to their plan. Will also is honest with Seth, telling Seth he'll lose his job but will get a large severance, and outlines how the entire trading system is basically rigged. Meanwhile, it is revealed that Robertson, Cohen, and Tuld were aware of the risks in the weeks leading up to the crisis. Tuld plans to offer Robertson's resignation to the board and employees as a scapegoat. Both Dale and Robertson are instructed to remain in the office all day and do nothing with the promise of handsome compensation in return. Robertson expresses regret for not doing more to stop the crisis.
Rogers tells his traders they are effectively ending their careers by selling the toxic assets, but they will be well compensated. The firm pulls off the fire sale despite growing suspicion from the buyers, and the firm takes tremendous losses while dumping positions for cents on the dollar. After trading hours end, there is another round of layoffs. Angry that he was retained by the firm while most of his traders lost their jobs, Rogers confronts Tuld and asks to resign, but Tuld dismisses his protests, claiming that the current crisis is no different from various crashes and bear markets of the past, and that sharp gains and losses are simply part of the economic cycle. He persuades Rogers to stay at the firm for another two years, promising that there will be a lot of money to be made from the coming crisis. Tuld also informs Rogers he will promote Sullivan. Rogers says he will accept the deal, but only because he needs the money.
In a final scene, Rogers buries his dead dog in his ex-wife’s front yard in the middle of the night, and learns from her that their son’s financial firm took a big hit but survived the day’s trading.Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers, Head of Sales and Trading
Demi Moore as Sarah Robertson, Chief Risk Management Officer
Jeremy Irons as John Tuld, CEO and Chairman of the Board
Paul Bettany as Will Emerson, Head of Trading
Stanley Tucci as Eric Dale, Former Head of Risk Management
Zachary Quinto as Peter Sullivan, Senior Risk Analyst
Simon Baker as Jared Cohen, Head of Capital Markets
Penn Badgley as Seth Bregman, Junior Risk Analyst
Aasif Mandvi as Ramesh Shah
Mary McDonnell as Mary Rogers
Ashley Williams as Heather Burke
Susan Blackwell as Lauren Bratberg
Al Sapienza as Louis Carmelo
Maria Dizzia as Executive Assistant
Peter Y. Kim as Timothy Singh
Oberon K.A. Adjepong as Coffee Guy
Principal photography began on June 21, 2010, in New York City. More than 80 percent of the action was shot on the 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza, which had recently been vacated by a trading firm. The film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film also played In Competition at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Bear. The film was produced by Zachary Quinto's production company, Before The Door Pictures, by Quinto and his two producing partners and Carnegie Mellon University classmates, Neal Dodson and Corey Moosa.
The film received positive reviews from critics, garnering an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus: "Smart, tightly wound, and solidly acted, Margin Call turns the convoluted financial meltdown of '08 into gripping, thought-provoking drama." The New Yorker film critic David Denby said it was "easily the best Wall Street movie ever made". Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three and half stars out of four, and said: "Margin Call employs an excellent cast who can make financial talk into compelling dialogue." A. O. Scott of The New York Times wrote: "It is hard to believe that Margin Call is Mr. Chandor’s first feature. His formal command — his ability to imply far more than he shows or says and to orchestrate a large, complex drama out of whispers, glances and snippets of jargon — is downright awe inspiring."
Roger Ebert wrote: "I think the movie is about how its characters are concerned only by the welfare of their corporations. There is no larger sense of the public good. Corporations are amoral, and exist to survive and succeed, at whatever human cost. This is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are angry about: They are not against capitalism, but about Wall Street dishonesty and greed. [...] [The cast] reflect the enormity of what is happening: Their company and their lives are being rendered meaningless." A.O. Scott wrote: "Margin Call is a thriller, moving through ambient shadows to the anxious tempo of Nathan Larson’s hushed, anxious score. It is also a horror movie, with disaster lurking like an unseen demon outside the skyscraper windows and behind the computer screens. It is also a workplace comedy of sorts. The crackling, syncopated dialogue and the plot, full of reversals and double crosses, owe an obvious debt to David Mamet’s profane fables of deal-making machismo. Hovering over all of it is the dark romance of capital: the elegance of numbers; the kinkiness of money; the deep, rotten, erotic allure of power."
Although the film does not depict any real Wall Street firm, and the fictional firm is never named, the plot has similarities to some events during the 2008 financial crisis: Goldman Sachs similarly moved early to hedge and reduce its position in mortgage-backed securities, at the urging of two employees, which essentially mirrors Tuld's comment about the advantage of moving first. Lehman Brothers moved second and went bankrupt. John Tuld's surname rhymes with that of the CEO of Lehman Brothers at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, Richard Fuld. Also, on September 21, 2008, Goldman Sachs became a traditional bank holding company and left investment banking. This may also have made sense for the fictional bank in the film.