Horrible bosses hit the big screen

December 6, 2010, 3:56 PM UTC

The success of The Social Network, Wall Street 2, and Undercover Boss may well mark 2010 as the year that film and television embraced business stories. And New Line’s star-studded Horrible Bosses aims to carry the trend into 2011.

The success of The Social Network, Wall Street 2, and Undercover Boss may well mark 2010 as the year that film and television embraced business stories. And now a New Line Cinema comedy set to hit the silver screen next year continues the fun, arguably with a more star-studded cast than any of its recent peers in the genre.

Horrible Bosses, which filmed in California and is now in post-production, is slated for a July release and could wind up being one of the most anticipated movies of next summer. The movie boasts a mega lineup of talent (Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx, to name a few) and an alluring, if dark, premise: three buddies conspire to murder their annoying bosses.

Bateman, Charlie Day (of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis play the three friends. According to reports, their bosses are, respectively: a pressuring, dictatorial manipulator (Spacey); a harassing, nymphomaniac dentist (Aniston); and an obnoxious, profit-obsessed heir to a family business (Colin Farrell, with a hilariously bad comb-over).

The supporting cast — which reportedly features Foxx as a scamming ex-con that meets the trio in a bar and gives them some very bad advice — is sure to attract attention from TV lovers: Julie Bowen (of Lost and Modern Family); Maulik Pancholy (Weeds and 30 Rock); and Isaiah Mustafa, from the Old Spice ad campaign (See: The adman behind Old Spice’s new life), all have parts. New Line declined to talk to Fortune about the film, but reports indicate that the impetus for the murder plan comes from Bateman’s character being passed up for a promotion. Expect at least a few great workplace scenes and some racy high jinks along the lines of The Hangover and other R-rated comedies.

Horrible Bosses likely has its roots in a red-hot entertainment trend. Film studios, as well as TV networks, are giving audiences an increasing number of shows and movies in the workplace.

“There’s been a big focus on the world of business in the past three years,” says Aaron Cohen of Horizon Media, a planning agency. “The subject has become much more of an integral part of people’s lives. I think there is an acceptance by the American public, and a greater understanding now, of what goes on in corporate offices. They want to see characters they can either relate to or shake their heads at in dismay. On either side of the issue, you can feel something.”

Viewers are responding with ratings and ticket sales. The Social Network, the tale of the creation of — and legal battles over — Facebook, banked nearly $80 million in the U.S. during October. Wall Street 2, meanwhile, which came out a week before The Social Network and was seen as its main box office competitor, didn’t do too shabby either: it made $9 million on opening day and totaled $19 million on its first weekend (though ticket sales fell off quickly after that). This month, the corporate downsizing drama The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck, hits theatres as well.

In a way, these movies are distant cousins of classic, nitty-gritty biz flicks like Executive Suite, the 1954 William Holden film about a corporate power struggle, or Barbarians at the Gate, the 1993 TV movie with James Garner about the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco (based on the 1990 book by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar) — but with more widespread appeal. As Larry Gerbrandt of Media Valuation Partners notes, the appeal of The Social Network “was less about business than it was about the fact that everybody uses Facebook. So the story of how it came to be had a built-in audience.”

Then there was last year’s Up In The Air, centered around George Clooney’s turn as a corporate axe-man, which played right into the broader economic climate and viewers’ fears of being laid off. “Up in the Air was a business movie,” says Gerbrandt, “But [the draw] had more to do with everyone losing their jobs due to the economy.”

Horrible Bosses, though a comedy, will bank on the same appeal: everyone can relate to having had a boss that made them miserable.

That entertainment is now favoring business plot lines may be the reason Horrible Bosses was finally ready for production five years after New Line first bought the script in 2005 from TV writer Mike Markowitz. Finding just the right cast and director proved difficult. In 2009, according to reports, the studio brought on comedy writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein to tinker with the script. New Line was reportedly pleased enough with the script to move forward.

Gerbrandt also points out that business films are well suited to what many viewers subconsciously expect in a story: good guys and bad guys. “In futuristic movies, almost to a fault, the world is dominated by evil corporations,” he says. “Avatar was about an evil corporation.” Indeed, New Line’s comedy has, in its three bosses, the obvious baddies.

The business-on-a-broader-stage trend is happening on television, too. Witness the success of CBS’ Undercover Boss, which plunks CEOs into bottom-rung jobs within their own companies, alongside unaware coworkers. The show debuted in February and has become one of the biggest TV hits of the year. (In truth, the business trend on television may have begun as far back as 2004, when The Apprentice first hooked fans, and haters, of The Donald.)

The success of Undercover Boss led to a slew of business programs in October and November. On October 28, Lifetime premiered The Fairy Jobmother, which follows “supernanny” Hayley Taylor as she helps unemployed people find work. Running Russell Simmons, which tracks the day-to-day drama of the rap mogul’s assistants as they organize his business appointments, premiered on November 2 on Oxygen. Sitcoms have jumped on the bandwagon as well: On September 23, NBC premiered Outsourced, which follows an American manager and his employees at a call center in India.

Of course, the granddaddy of recent business shows has to be The Office, the workplace sitcom that has lasted seven seasons and is still going strong. But even 30 Rock — about the making of a television show — is an office comedy, though many probably don’t think of it that way.

More than anything else, a comedy like Horrible Bosses owes an immeasurable debt to what might be the closest film cousin of The Office, Mike Judge’s 1999 workplace comedy Office Space, which became a cult classic with its relatable story of hating one’s job. Ironically, Aniston was in that film, but as an employee suffering under a casual dining restaurant (think T.G.I. Friday’s) chain manager that demanded she wear more pieces of “flair.”

This time around, she’s finally the boss (well, one of them). Hilarity will ensue, if frustrated peons Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis have anything to say about it.