Top Five Sales Movies Of All Time

From Al Pacino in Glengarry Glenn Ross to Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, these are movie characters who've got the chat

So you’ve had the big idea, and between registering it, patenting it and copyrighting it, you’ve done everything humanly possible to stamp it as your own. Now what? 

Chances are you’ve got to sell it: to investors, to clients, and to partners as well as prospective employees. The fulfilment of your vision rests on your ability to convince others to buy in.

Salesmanship is something every MBA should have practiced; yet strangely it is not a focus of business schools. Why is that? It’s a skill certainly, but is it an art or a science, or something in between?

Some, such as the Sales Research Institute, lean towards selling as a science, and a skill that’s teachable. While there’s some truth to this, great salesmanship is a little too real world for the classroom.

Others view salesmanship as an art, best fine-tuned through being in the presence of masters.

Whichever it is, there are luckily plenty of movies and plays about selling, and the best are excellent if you want to develop your abilities. Instead of reading a book, just sit back and hit play.

1. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Brilliant performances from an incredible ensemble cast: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin. But the real star is David Mamet, the writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play the movie is based on. 

Selling real estate for Premiere Properties is challenging enough, but stress levels skyrocket when Blake (Baldwin), visits from “Corporate” with the news that only the top two salesmen will be retained at the end of the month. What’s so great about this movie is that it explores all of the roles in a sales organization, from “Corporate” (Baldwin), the Office Manager (Spacey), the top salesman (Pacino), and the struggler (Lemmon).

Sales concepts: the scarcity principle, the high value placed on the good sales leads, and “ABC” or Always Be Closing.

2. Boiler Room (2000)

Seth Davis joins J.T. Marlin, an unscrupulous brokerage firm, where he unknowingly helps stoke the fires of a pump and dump operation. As a broker, Davis works the phones constantly pushing the shares of unheard of companies to unsophisticated investors. Once Davis, played by Giovanni Ribisi, gets wise to what he’s a part of, he tries to make amends.

Sales concepts: creating an illusion of membership of an exclusive club (a tactic used effectively by Bernie Madoff). “Dialing for Dollars”: if you know you convert 20 per cent of leads into sales, the way to make more sales is to raise your conversion percentage or to make more calls. It’s that simple. J.T Marlin literally hums with the sound of sales pitches, hence the boiler room analogy. The reality is that most successful salespeople work extremely hard.

3. 12 Angry Men (1957)

This classic study of the art of persuasion begins right after the closing arguments in a murder case. At stake is the life of a teenage boy accused of killing his father: if found guilty by all 12 jurors, he’ll be sent to the electric chair. At the initial vote, 11 jurors say “guilty”, with the lone holdout being Juror Number Eight, played by Henry Fonda. 

Having studied the 11 strangers, their personal prejudices, and the merits of the case, Juror Number Eight succeeds in persuading each of the other jurors that the evidence is circumstantial and that the boy should be acquitted.

Sales concepts: study your prospect, and ask questions, before delivering a tailored pitch. Different people have different hot buttons.

4. Death of a Salesman (1949)

Arthur Miller’s play, which has been made into as a movie three times, perfectly captures the pathos of a tragic character: Willie Loman, a middle-aged salesman no longer able to earn a living. From the name of the lead character (“Low Man”) to his eventual suicide, Miller set the sales profession back a generation. After all, who would encourage their kids to pursue Sales after seeing this?

Sales concepts: while Sales often has few barriers to entry, there aren’t many barriers to exit either. The pressure to perform is constant and relentless. As in nature, weaker members of the herd are culled.

5. Tommy Boy (1995)

To save the family auto parts business, Thomas Callahan III, aka “Tommy Boy”, played by Chris Farley, has just a little time to sell a lot of brake pads. If only Tommy Boy had the sales ability and relationships of his just-deceased father. Accompanied by David Spade, the pair set off on a road trip across the American Midwest. 

The early sales calls are hilariously disastrous. Fortunately Tommy Boy’s sales ability awakens, leading to a run of big orders and, ultimately, salvation for the auto parts factory back in Sandusky, Ohio.

Sales concepts: for tips and laughs, focus on the road trip scenes. Prepare for objections, practice and perfect the close, shake off rejection, and remain focused.

Want to improve your sales skills? Take a look at sales programs at some of the world's top business schools! Or check out this new Sales & Marketing Masters at Italy's SDA Bocconi School of Management.

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