In the 1990s, the number of new American millionaires reached astonishing proportions. Today, one out of every 36 working Americans is in the millionaire category, and the numbers are rising not falling. We live in an age when being really, really rich is considered really, really cool. And, for some, the faster you get rich the better. Kids just barely out of college have ridden the cyberboom and the bull market to instantaneous wealth. 20 year-old secretaries at Microsoft have stock options worth millions. 19 year-old rappers have 400-acre estates. 30 year-old brokers are stockpiling Ferraris.
But for those without an Ivy League education or a Silicon Valley connection, for those like Seth Davis who want or need a quick way into the world of wealth and respectability, there is another alternative: the boiler rooms.
In the boiler room of a hard-sell brokerage firm, a hard-working, smart-mouthed kid off the streets can make a million bucks in mere months by selling dubious stock over the phone. Here´s the way it works: employees of boiler rooms pressure their cold-call customers any which way they can into buying stock in unknown or bogus companies for huge commissions. Once the price of the stock is driven high enough, insiders sell, making fortunes for themselves and often wiping out the savings of innocent investors.
Few outsiders have ever seen the scams and pressure-cooker techniques of boiler rooms up close. They are seductive, secretive firms where only those trained and recruited to be loyal are allowed inside. Often staying just one step ahead of the law, the brokerage firms take no chances. (Recently, the North American Securities Administrators Association made prosecuting boiler rooms a top priority).
Bucking the secrecy, first-time writer/director Ben Younger wanted to crack open this hidden world. He saw the boiler room as the perfect setting for a high-wire drama about the new roving packs of unattached young men who find honor in the dollar, who chase after mega-fortunes without the faintest clue of what to do with them.
“The boiler room is a world that people have never really seen,” comments Younger, “and I wanted to get this on the screen.” Younger, a New York native, was himself recruited by a brokerage boiler room when he was a struggling screenwriter making the transition from being a grip and cameraman. “I went into the recruiter´s office knowing nothing about finance and this guy just walks in and tells us we´re all going to make a million dollars within two years of being hired,” recalls Younger. “It was incredible. I looked around the room and there were lots of other kids there younger than me and I was only 20 years old at the time. It was like a Fascist Youth rally and I just knew right then and there this was going to be the subject of my first script. I started writing everything down.”
Although Younger didn´t take the boiler room job, he did observe first-hand the adrenaline rush, the foul-mouthed fraternity, the smooth-talking methods for making outrageous sales. He also conducted extensive interviews with boiler room veterans, many of whom spoke on condition of total anonymity.
Explains Younger: “In the beginning, what I wanted to do is just park myself in a boiler room and live there for eight months. But no one would let me inside. So instead I talked to people who worked there, sat for hours with my tape recorder as if making a documentary. I did this for a year, completely absorbing this world. I stayed true in the script to the way it really is – misogynistic rules like ´don´t pitch the bitch´ come straight from reality.”
What Younger discovered in the boiler rooms was a secret fraternity with its own code of conduct, its own language, even its own three-step path to customer´s pocketbooks: first the cold call, luring the customer in with fast talk and promises of free information; then a hot stock “tip” to get the customer excited; followed by the hardcore close which often pushes such psychological buttons as fear of missed opportunities and desire for financial stability and family security.
Younger also uncovered something else: the fascinating idea that the young men in the boiler rooms defined themselves entirely by how much they had made rather than what they had achieved. They were millionaires without a cause, street kids raised on films such as Wall Street and Glengarry Glenn Ross, chasing the green just for the thrill of it.
His reflection of this world in a tense, suspense-laden script immediately attracted producers Susan and Jennifer Todd. “I had never experienced anything like the Boiler Room before,” says Jennifer Todd. “It was an amazingly well written script that took you somewhere you´d never been and I thought it would make a completely unique movie.”
Adds Suzanne Todd: “It was a very entertaining concept. But it also poses the question of what you would do if someone offered you a million dollars to do something that is just marginally illegal. Would you do it at all? Would you do it and then get out? Would you feel bad about it? Or would you refuse? It´s really about the questions we all face when it comes to the line between money and morals.”