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Our Nominees For Most Evil CRE Character In The Movies

A Martian anthropologist who studied Earth movies would learn one thing about real estate owners and developers: They are evil.

The trope of the evil developer or landlord in movies is an enduring one. For generations, the depictions of the haves are often more corrupt than the have-nots, Emerson College Professor of Visual and Media Arts Tom Cooper told Bisnow via email. 

"Whether in the legend of Robin Hood, or in Dickens' characters in England, or Sinclair’s characters in the U.S., it's been common to show the affluent and aristocratic, and more recently the corporate and entrepreneurial, as part of those who take more than they give," Cooper said.


Storytelling also demands good villains, and a real estate developer can be made to order by scriptwriters to fit the bill.

"The appearance of an antagonist, such as a real estate developer, can create a type of conflict in which a new structure or presence threatens a close-knit community, its way of life or its very existence," Los Angeles Film School Film History Instructor Pauline Adamek said, also via email.

"This leads to the ‘David and Goliath’ trope of the small band of scrappy rebels fighting a greater, seemingly insurmountable oppressive force and, for a happy resolution, prevailing," Adamek said.

NYU Professor of Cinema Studies Howard Besser stressed the power the developers can have over other people.

"Real estate developers are primarily motivated by monetary gain," Besser said via email. "And the developments that they pursue affect all kinds of aspects of people's daily lives (environment, traffic, views of the sun, affordable housing). 

"A film that favors the public's concerns over monetary concerns is certainly going to have a wider appeal than one that favors monetary concerns," Besser said.

Though the evil developer/landlord trope has deep roots, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is planning to hand out Oscars next weekend, has curiously neglected to honor fictional commercial real estate. So here are Bisnow's suggestions for the all-time best real estate villains.

Mr. Potter, It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

The evil landlord is an idea that probably goes back as far as private property, but few have come to life in fiction as vividly as the grasping, greedy and all together unpleasant Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life.

He is the slumlord out to thwart the single-family development that Bailey Building & Loan wants to promote in Bedford Falls, New York. Presumably he is also the monopoly owner of Pottersville in the alternate reality hero George Bailey finds himself in.

The evil slumlord Mr. Potter of It's a Wonderful Life

Mr. Potter: "George, I am an old man and most people hate me. But I don't like them either, so that makes it all even. You know just as well as I do that I run practically everything in this town but the Bailey Building & Loan. You know, also, that for a number of years I've been trying to get control of it. Or kill it ... 

"During the Depression, you and I were the only ones that kept our heads. You saved the Building and Loan, I saved all the rest."

George Bailey: "Yes, well, most people say you stole all the rest."

Mr. Potter: "The envious ones say that, George. The suckers."

In fact, Potter isn't really an astute businessman. The real money after World War II was in subdividing and developing single-family homes, not being a rack-rent landlord. He could have partnered with George Bailey and they would have made millions, especially if the New York State Thruway eventually ran anywhere near Bedford Falls.

Hedley Lamarr, Blazing Saddles (1974)


Though not a real estate developer or owner per se, the scheming Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles is definitely the architect of a classic land grab. He does his bad guy best to drive the honest, salt-of-the-earth folk of Rock Ridge (you know, morons) away from their town so his railroad can have the land. He is willing to hire a lot of lowlife muscle to get his way.

Hedley Lamarr: "I want you to round up every vicious criminal and gunslinger in the West ... I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists."

There is a happy, and surreal, ending: the racist residents of Rock Ridge overcome their prejudice and let Sheriff Bart (the smartest man among them) lead them in a fight against Hedley Lamarr's motley gang of thugs. A fight that somehow ends up on on the Warner Bros. back lot.

Noah Cross, Chinatown (1974)

Instead of being played for laughs, the land grab in Chinatown is dead serious, with the vastly wealthy Noah Cross scheming and murdering his way into the ownership of prime development land in pre-WWII Los Angeles County. Also, he has a very dark family secret to hide.

Private eye Jake Gittes eventually has the chance to confront Cross about his plan. In his own twisted way, Cross dreams of vast growth for greater LA.

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?

Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?

Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?

Noah Cross: Oh, my, yes!

Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?

Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future. 


Mr. Teague, Poltergeist (1982)

In Poltergeist, a developer, Mr. Teague, isn't out to evict good people or destroy something good for mere filthy lucre, but he is willing to cut corners in search of profit. He developed a planned community on Orange County, California, land that had an unfortunate environmental issue: dead people buried there. 

Why go to the expense of digging up all those bodies when simply moving the headstones ought to do the trick? Angry spooks, that's why.

Eventually, of course, the truth comes out and homebuyer Steve Freeling isn't happy with Mr. Teague.

Steve Freeling [shouting at Mr. Teague]: "You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! Why? Why?"

The odd thing, aside from the fact that the movie says that UC Irvine has parapsychologists on staff or that the California EPA didn't get involved somehow, is that our hero Freeling worked for Mr. Teague. Presumably he got some kind of discount for buying a house in Poltergeist Acres, or whatever the development was called. And yet he didn't know about Mr. Teague's scheming.

Mr. Douglas, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984) 

Need a villain for your '80s breakdance movie? A developer will do nicely. In Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, the already-rich Mr. Douglas wants to destroy a community center where the kids dance, so that he can build a shopping mall, back when developers were still interested in building shopping malls. The kids are naturally upset.

Ozone: Looky here, hot shot, you can forget your plans, man. Cause we're going to stop you. We're going to stop you cold.

Mr. Douglas: I doubt if an arrogant bunch of street kids have the power to ...

Byron: You don't know how much power we really have, do you? We'll go to the press and we'll fight this thing all the way.

And so the kids did fight it all the way, which also gives them the opportunity to do a lot of breakdancing. The moral of the movie is, dance with enough heart and you can stop the greedy development of a shopping mall the rest of the neighborhood just might appreciate.


Many Villains in the Scooby-Doo Franchise

Say what you want about Scooby-Doo Where Are You!, which started as a Saturday morning cartoon in 1969 and has included various spinoff movies and iterations since then, the stories tend to be consistent. As in, always the same.

Plot: meddling kids and their talking Great Dane uncover a nefarious scheme that fakes supernatural elements to (fairly often) facilitate a land grab. At the end, the villain's rubber mask is pulled off to reveal (fairly often) a shady real estate type.

Honorable Mentions

Caddyshack (1980): A loutish developer wants to bulldoze the golf course to built condos. He's also the most fun character in the movie.

The Goonies (1985): A developer wants a family's house to expand a country club. The beleaguered family does what anyone would do to save their home, look for lost pirate treasure.

Batteries Not Included (1987): Developers want to destroy a building that is home to lovable eccentrics. Space aliens help save the day. 

Ernest Goes to Camp (1987): Does anyone remember that goofball, Ernest? Anyway, he somehow saves a summer camp from ruthless strip miners.

The Brady Bunch Movie (1995): The Bradys stand to lose their home in foreclosure to a developer (is Mr. Brady so poorly paid as an architect?). The kids enter a talent contest to win enough dough to get the family out of the trouble.

Dirty Work (1998): A greedy developer wants to evict tenants so he can build a parking lot for his ... opera house. 

Arrested Development (2003): Granted, this is a TV show and not a movie, but we couldn't very well leave it out. Development is in the title, after all, and corrupt developer George Bluth Sr. is one of the small screen's greatest scheming, underhanded, manipulative CRE execs ever. 

Up (2009): When pressed by greedy developers for his house, an old man decides to move to assisted living. Actually, he attaches balloons to the house and floats it away.