The new film starring Paul Dano tells the real-life story of the amateur investor who turned Wall Street upside down thanks to GameStop stocks
The GameStop stockbroking scandal that rocked Wall Street gets the Hollywood treatment in the new film Dumb Money.
The timely dramedy, based on executive producer Ben Mezrich’s 2021 book The Antisocial Network, tells the true story of an amateur stock trader who turned the Wall Street system into a democratized money maker. Starring Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Shailene Woodley and Seth Rogen, the film was directed by I, Tonya's Craig Gillespie.
Dano plays the real-life Keith Gill, a financial analyst and amateur investor known as video creator “Roaring Kitty” on Twitter and YouTube. Starting in 2019 on a Subreddit dedicated to day trading stocks, Gill urged followers to invest in video games store GameStop Corp. (NYSE: GME), driving up its price up 1,700 percent and forcing short sellers — including hedge fund billionaires — into what’s known as a stock short squeeze.
"A lot of people feel the system is broken,” Dano as Gill says in the film’s trailer, which offers glimpses of the shocking fallouts from the internet-fueled campaign. “The whole idea of the stock market is if you are smart and maybe with a little luck you can make your fortune — certainly not anymore. There's no hope for the little guy… Maybe now there is.”
The events of The Antisocial Network and Dumb Money are rooted in the concept of short selling, “a practice where you borrow shares for a fee and sell them for (ideally) a high price, then buy them back at (ideally) a lower price to return them,” per Elizabeth Lopatto of The Verge.
It’s a risky investment strategy because a short seller is speculating that a company’s share prices will drop; if they go up instead, they’ll not only lose money but be forced to cover, or buy the shares themselves, which further drives up the price. “Losses are unlimited,” writes The Guardian’s Rob Davies, “because there is no defined ceiling on how far a share can rise.”
That phenomenon, a short squeeze, is what professional investors like hedge fund managers seek to avoid when betting against the decline of a flailing company’s stock price. GameStop, which has sold video games in brick-and-mortar stores since 1984, became a prime example of such a company by 2020.
Around that time, as COVID-19 began restricting people to their homes, amateur stock trading made accessible by social media and investing apps like Robinhood rose in popularity. On Reddit threads like r/WallStreetBets, everyday investors looking to make a quick buck began noticing that hedge funds like Melvin Capital had taken large short positions on companies whose stock prices were anticipated to fall.
Championing GameStop as a company worth investing in since 2019 was Gill, whose videos offering financial analysis garnered enough of a following to begin dramatically driving up the company’s stock prices in January 2021 — totaling a 1,700 percent increase, per The New York Times.
The online “chat-room usurpers” that rallied around the idea began seeing it as a righteous cause, a way to hold short sellers like hedge fund managers accountable and expose the flaws in Wall Street’s system, as Bloomberg’s Brandon Kochkodin reported at the time.
While Gill himself later told The Wall Street Journal he “wasn't a rabble-rouser out to take on the establishment, just someone who believes investors can find value in unloved stocks,” he was nevertheless called upon to testify in front of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee due to his role in the GameStop short squeeze.
“If they were going to the moon, I wanted to go too,” single mother and nurse Kim Campbell told TIME of buying 100 GameStop shares when prices were still low. She’s the real-life inspiration for the film Dumb Money’s Jennifer Campbell, played by Ferrera.
TIME reports that Campbell only sold five of her shares, making a hefty profit but holding the remaining shares in order to keep hedge funds caught in their short squeeze — a move mirrored by Gill’s other followers and other everyday investors. “I thought, ‘I want the money,’ but then it grew into representing so much more,” she said.
The community of amateur investors was then outraged when the trading app Robinhood froze trading on GameStop and similar companies (like AMC movie theaters, Blackberry and Build-A-Bear Workshop) in late January 2021, restricting the short squeeze phenomenon. Charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission for misleading clients on revenue from trades, Robinhood agreed to pay $65 million to settle. Hedge funds like Melvin Capital also took significant losses.
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The controversy caught mainstream media attention, including from billionaire Elon Musk. Only two years later, Gillespie has brought the story to celluloid with an all-star cast. The director told PEOPLE he was inspired to take on Dumb Money because his son was one of GameStop’s investors at the short squeeze’s peak.
“Robinhood froze the buy option, the stock got created and then [came] the outrage and the anger and the frustration at feeling like a system that is inherently rigged against them,” he said. “I got to feel all of that and see that and the memes, all through him, and just that incredible frustration. So it was this amazingly emotional journey.”
Dumb Money is now playing in theaters.
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