How Does Hollywood See Real Estate Agents?

Hollywood is responsible for how a lot of professions are perceived by the general public. Both propagating stereotypes and creating new tropes, movies and television shows wield a tremendous amount of power in terms of how police officers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists and politicians are viewed, with whole series or films centered on (often inaccurate) portrayals of what these people are like or what their jobs entail. 

Matthew Mullin, principal of the Mullin Group at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Nevada Properties, feels media portrayals are off the mark and yet another case of how exciting (or exaggerated) storytelling often leaves reality behind. 

“Because (real estate is) labeled a ‘sales’ position, TV tends to highlight big flashy personalities that do a lot of talking, selling and convincing people to buy and sell homes,” he said.

But what about real estate? What perceptions—fair or not—inform filmmakers who craft these characters, and what tools do they use to formulate emotional reactions, attitudes and audiences? And how are these portrayals likely to affect the way clients and potential clients perceive you? With public trust of real estate agents on the uptick (a 2018 Gallup poll found that 25% of people have high trust in the profession versus 19% who report low trust, while 54% consider the profession to be “average” in the honesty department), are we on the way to seeing our first REALTOR® superhero in a Marvel movie? (The newest “Captain America” comic does have the hero buy his childhood apartment complex to give the tenants discounted rates.) 

Maybe not, but it can still be helpful to understand just how media and storytelling has evolved, what the perceptions are, and how you and your business might dispel—or conform to—the appearance, attitude and habits that Hollywood expects.

Here are a few of the REALTOR® archetypes you’ll notice if you watch enough movies and/or TV:

  • The scheming, cutthroat workaholic

This example is the most common and best exemplified in the 1992 classic film “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey portray a gang of unscrupulous, desperate and backstabbing real estate brokers in a world where lying, threatening and stealing from rivals and friends is the norm. Clients are treated like idiots, either browbeaten or manipulated into buying, and making money is the only true virtue, as laid out in Baldwin’s famous “coffee is for closers” speech.

A relatively more recent example is the 2014 drama film “99 Homes,” set in Great Recession-era Florida. Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker evicted from his home. To secure his family’s future, Nash goes to work for the house-flipping broker who evicted him, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Carver is shown as a pitiless hyper-capitalist, and Nash working for him is framed as, in essence, a deal with the devil. 

The film does note his eviction-centered business model is abnormal and a response to the recession, however. Carver and Nash, as a REALTOR® and construction worker, agree it feels much better to put people in homes than to kick them out—but Carver goes where the money is. “You can’t get emotional about real estate,” he advises Nash, adding that America is a country “built by and for winners,” and he refuses to not be one. “99 Homes” reinforces the perception of real estate as a career path that ends with easy money, precisely because (the film depicts) those who work in it cut corners and exploit people. 

An example that’s less “cutthroat,” more “workaholic” is Carolyn Burnham (Annette Benning) in the 1999 Academy Award-winner “American Beauty.” Early in the film, a long day of failing to sell a home leaves her in tears—but her response is to slap and berate herself for being “a baby.” Benning’s character starts an affair with her boss—at least partially out of ambition—and eventually plans to shoot her husband.

Benning was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar award for her portrayal, and her complex and at least somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the real estate profession skews from many of the clowney or cartoonish depictions of agents in media.

The most exaggerated evil coming from real estate lies in the manga/anime “Dragon Ball Z.” The villain Frieza, an alien conqueror, leads the Planet Trade Organization, which invades, conquers and then sells off whole planets. Directly inspiring this character was an economic recession in Japan that was kicked off in the late 80s/early 90s (when “Dragon Ball” was made), caused by an asset bubble bursting. Frieza’s planet killing is a fantastical allegory for that, according to the series’ creator, Akira Toriyama. He wrote in 1995 that he considered real estate speculators to be, “(t)he worst kind of people.”

  • The indubitably optimistic, pushy salesperson

A trope that needs little explanation, many films and TV shows portray agents as bubbly, single-minded sellers who put a positive spin on everything, always dress well and always have a plan. 

A good send-up of this stereotype can be found in the Netflix show “Santa Clarita Diet,” which casts Drew Barrymore as California real estate agent Sheila Hammond—who also has to navigate life as a zombie, dependent on consuming human flesh (though she commits to only eating “bad” people). This dark comedy plays on the inherent practicality of Barrymore’s character as well as going “above and beyond” to win listings (eating a potential lead’s ex-husband).

Another example of this trope would be Phil Dunphy (played by Ty Burrell) in the long-running sitcom “Modern Family.” In his job as a real estate agent, Dunphy is characterized as a highly confident and skilled salesperson who occasionally oversteps boundaries. One scene has him using his young son to convince a buyer that a home is child-friendly and another has him blackmailing a rival of his wife utilizing his knowledge of building codes and local school districts. 

Also on the comedic side, Amy Sedaris portrays a pervy, bullying and disorganized New York City real estate broker on the cult comedy “Broad City,” speeding through the city in a pedicab or a smart car to show a series of uninhabitable apartments while inappropriately working in references to her side-hustles (making dolls out of human hair, raising exotic fish). She attempts to convince the main characters that not having a bathroom is actually a positive thing (“Where isn’t the bathroom?” she asks) and a blood-splattered wall has its perks (“You get to pick the new paint color!”).

These types of portrayals feed into the (understandable) view of real estate agents as independent and high-energy, with big personalities, who are often well-meaning but also bumbling. Often these portrayals tend toward the exaggerated and cartoonish, feeding into stereotypes that agents are unqualified or unscrupulous—though Burrell’s character in “Modern Family” is often cited as a much more sympathetic, grounded version of this trope. 

Darker spins on this archetype show up in the FX crime series “Justified,” about U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who operates like a 19th century cowboy despite living in modern day Kentucky. The show twice uses REALTORS® as thorns in his side. Givens’ ex-wife has remarried to a real estate agent, Gary Hawkins (William Ragsdale)—in a highly relatable joke, Givens once asks Hawkins precisely how to pronounce “REALTOR®.” (real-ter or real-a-tor?)

  • The consummate professional

One of the most sympathetic portrayals of a real estate agent on film is Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) in the 2009 comedy “I Love You, Man.” Dedicated to his fiance and his job as a real estate agent, Rudd’s charming character has his career stay in focus during the story when he manages a listing for Lou Ferigno (playing himself).

Though Klaven struggles to find his assertive side both in his personal life and in selling homes, his job is used as a signifier of professionalism and a career-focused lifestyle. The film’s central conflict is that he has no best friend to be his best man—until he meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) while hosting an open house. They first bond over Fife enjoying some of the food that Klaven set up for attendees; “I never understand why people are so afraid to eat at an open house,” he says. 

In the animated superhero show “Invincible,” protagonist Mark Grayson’s mother Debbie (Sandra Oh) is a real estate agent. We see Debbie setting up open houses and talking with her agent colleagues, but her job takes a backseat to superhero shenanigans; Debbie being an agent is used to underline what a normal, average person she is compared to the rest of her family. By making her profession a background detail, the show normalizes it.

Is there fact in fictional real estate agents? 

How do real REALTORS® feel about their portrayal across these movies and TV? 

“Those in the top 1% – 2% of the business helping the most families and selling the most homes are actually the most quiet, reserved, community connected and strategic thinking professionals,” says Mullin.

“(T)op agents generally don’t go on TV shows or billboards,” he continues, “but just have deep and wide relationships all over the local marketplace helping local businesses, acting more like a river guide for families through a highly stressful and complex process in a sea of noise and over-communicated information to help people craft the experience and solutions that are right for them.”

What about the other negative stereotypes of REALTORS®? Well, once stereotypes are ingrained, they’re self-promoting. REALTORS® fall under the salesman umbrella; the “shady salesman who peddles poor product quick buck” is a long-established heel character in movies, TV and literature. Landlords and commercial real estate investors are other common fictional villains (specifically when they want to kick people out of homes to profit themselves). There’s a negative perception of people who make money off housing and agents/brokers are lumped in under that.

Hollywood loves scrappy underdog stories (e.g., “Rocky”); there are a few examples out there of plucky REALTORS® on the grind (see: “I Love You, Man” and “Modern Family”). Most of the time, though, the occupation isn’t used for such stories. There is a perception of real estate as a get-rich-quick job with a low education threshold, which reinforces the aforementioned “shady salesman” stereotype. 

Reality TV, despite highlighting flesh-and-blood agents instead of ones cooked up in a writer’s head, isn’t the answer to the industry’s media woes. After all, reality TV is ultimately as scripted and exaggerated as fiction can be. Bess Freedman, CEO of Brown Harris Stevens, told RISMedia: 

“Real estate reality shows are inaccurate representations of what real estate agents do on a daily basis. The majority of real estate professionals spend hours on the computer and in showings, help clients put financial documents in order and are working with banks and attorneys. The reality shows make it seem easy, like all you need is a designer suit, luxury car and keys to a few doors to unlock huge sums of money. 

In reality, real estate is all about building trust and relationships. I understand that there is value in entertainment, but I fear these shows have done more harm than good when it comes to public opinion and paints the entire profession in a negative light.”

Are media portrayals of real estate agents meaningful when the industry is facing more tangible challenges? It is because stereotypes bleed over into reality; if potential clients have an image of REALTORS® as untrustworthy, that will harm your business. There’s a reason the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) champions the industry during its annual “That’s Who We R” PR campaign. Negative stereotypes of REALTORS® are pervasive ones that will take work to flip.

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