The developer-as-villain has a long and distinguished history in popular films. Director Frank Capra, a pioneer in establishing the trope, used it twice, in You Can’t Take it With You (1938), which hinges on a rapacious businessman’s efforts to snatch a home from a reluctant seller, and most famously in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the holiday classic that airs Sunday night on NBC.
Technically, one could argue that It’s a Wonderful Life also makes a case for the role of the benevolent developer. But George Bailey, for all his other virtues, isn’t much of a businessperson. His bank needs to be bailed out twice over the course of the film. The holiday lesson here: If you want to make money, you need to be Mr. Potter.
In the wake of It’s a Wonderful Life, Hollywood unleashed a grim parade of evil developers. They’re typically seen in a few basic scenarios:
A character is called out as a developer to show the audience that he is unsavory (see Beetlejuice, Caddyshack, Summer Rental).
A beloved building/piece of land/town will be destroyed by an evil developer if the heroes can’t come up with a large amount of money. The details are usually sparse. (The Goonies is the purest example of this genre, but many others, such as The Brady Bunch Movie, follow a similar formula).
The evil developer has a plot to increase the value of an investment, which needs to be stopped by the heroes. (Lex Luthor is the plotter in Superman.)
The heyday of the evil developer movie was the 1980s. This was the era of the yuppie, when factories closed and Donald Trump thrived. It was also a time of real-life economic swings, from the high inflation and interest rates of the early 1980s—followed by a recession—to the Savings and Loan Crisis of the last part of the decade.
Like Frank Capra before him, filmmaker Steven Spielberg was particularly drawn to using evil developers as villains, and the populist fables he produced in the 1980s were full of them. In the horror flick Poltergeist (1982), an exceptionally evil developer builds an Orange County planned community over a cemetery without removing the corpses, with disastrous results. The Goonies (1985) made heroes out of young people searching for pirate treasure to save their quaint Oregon neighborhood from being turned into a golf course.