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Film / The Founder

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Founder's, keepers.

Ray Kroc: A glorious name, "McDonald's." I had to have it.
Richard "Dick" McDonald: You don't "have it."
Ray Kroc: sure about that?

The Founder is a 2016 biopic starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the alleged founder of McDonald's.

At the age of 52, Ray Kroc is an over-the-hill milkshake machine salesman. That is, until he learns of a small burger restaurant in Southern California called "McDonald's," which has ordered an unusually high number of mixers. Run by brothers Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch), Ray is quickly captivated by their revolutionary method of food production, utilizing an assembly line to prepare meals in seconds rather than minutes. At his insistence, the restaurant begins to franchise and soon becomes one of the most recognized brands in the world.

Unfortunately in doing so, Kroc begins to run roughshod over the McDonalds brothers' wishes with increasing ruthlessness until he forcibly squeezes them out to take the brand name for himself.


This film contains examples of:

  • 20% More Awesome:
    Dick: The fries...
    Mac: What about them?
    Dick: They're five percent too crisp.
  • Adapted Out: Certain people are excised from the film.
    • There's no mention of Ronald McDonald.
    • Ray's second wife, Jane Dobbins.
    • Ray’s daughter Marilyn.
    • The McDonald brothers had already licensed the McDonald's name to another company before Ray signed on, and he had to buy the rights back before starting his franchising plan.
    • There’s no mention of Kroc’s acquaintance with Walt Disney, they had met as ambulance attendant trainees at Old Greenwich, Connecticut during World War I, and Kroc even wrote a letter to Walt asking if he could open a McDonald’s at Disneyland.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Ray Kroc and Joan Smith, falling just short of May–December Romance by a couple of years. In real-life, they were 26 years apart, first meeting when Joan was in her late-twenties and Kroc in his mid-fifties. There's a similar age gap by the actors, with 24 years separating Micheal Keaton and Linda Cardellini.
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  • The Alcoholic: Ray Kroc, though it's downplayed. He's rarely seen without a bottle or flask of Canadian Club within reach, but it's not shown to have any negative effect on him that his pursuit of wealth and power didn't have already. The Real Life Ray Kroc battled alcoholism throughout his life.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Rather, ambition is evil when you make other people pay the price for it. The McDonald brothers were ambitious, but they had something Ray didn't: a commitment to quality and willingness to focus on a handful of locations if at all, rather than a big picture. What's more, Dick loves Mac too much to be mercenary and make him suffer. Ray will throw anyone under the bus, including his own wife, to get what he wants. In the end he gets everything he wanted but stares at a broken man in the mirror.
  • And That's Terrible: The use of powdered milkshakes to save money instead of using ice cream is lambasted by the brothers. We all know it'll be retired anyway.
  • Angry Chef: The McDonald Brothers. While some of their grievances could be seen as legitimate, most of the time they act hostile and contrarian for no particular reason.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The credits go over Ray's rise to power, the fate of his underlings, how the McDonald's brothers got screwed over, and the very last frame confirms that yes, McDonald's starts using ice cream again in their milkshakes.
  • Artistic License – History: The film takes a number of liberties with the real story.
    • In the film, Joan and Rollie introduce Ray to instant milk shake mix, which infuriates Dick and Mac. In reality, Ray was already familiar with shake mix from his days as a milkshake salesman, and the brothers had already been bought out of the company at this point.
    • The movie implies that the McDonald brothers invented the idea of a fast food restaurant. While the Speedee System was indeed theirs, White Castle was using a similar system as far back as 1921. One could also argue the automats of the time used the same principles for on-demand quick food preparation.
    • The McDonalds brothers are presented as the victims of Ray's predatory behavior, who eventually screwed them out of their stake in the company. In real life, the brothers were very happy with the huge nest egg they had for retirement. Their request for 1% of the annual profits as part of the buyout agreement has never been verified and the brothers never attempted to sue over it. Therefore, it's entirely possible that it's all just a rumor from some of their bitter descendants who would be billionaires today had that actually been signed. Likewise, while they certainly had some disagreements with Ray, their split was a mutual decision and they never expressed any regrets about it. In 1984, Dick even ate the ceremonial 50 billionth burger McDonald's sold.
  • Artistic License – Law: The way the movie presents the "handshake agreement" is this. While there's debate over whether or not it happened at all, the way the movie presents it suggests that it's a fait accompli that Ray is going to violate his word and there's absolutely nothing the McDonald brothers can do about it. However, he's making the offer in a room full of witnesses, including lawyers, who would be able (and in the case of the lawyers, legally obliged as officers of the court — even Ray's) to honestly testify that Ray made the agreement and shook on it in front of them. Furthermore, as it was made during an official legal meeting, it would be entered into any minutes and records as having occurred even if there was no written contract. While it would still be more difficult to legally enforce than a written contract (hence why most lawyers would discourage such arrangements), it wouldn't be impossible under such circumstances; Ray would likely still be legally obliged to honor such a handshake agreement if he was pressed upon it.
  • Awesome, but Impractical:
    • Drive-ins, to the brothers and Ray. The brothers' drive-in tapers off in profits as the business model requires a large staff, silverware and dishes, and drawing primarily raucous teenagers at the expense of other demographics, which results in a rowdy place to eat with long wait times and inattentive servers. So the brothers come up with dispensing with carhops and most of their menu, and redesign the restaurant to be a more approachable establishment for families.
    • From a strictly business perspective, many of the McDonalds brothers terms insisting on quality over quantity (such as demanding the use of ice cream in the milkshakes over powder) fall here — they make the products taste better and are more natural, but they are also more expensive, harder to store and eat into the profits of the franchisees.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: While not entirely evil, Ray isn't exactly a saint either. By the end of the movie, he not only essentially gets everything he wants, but then goes out of his way to screw over the people who played a direct role of making that possible such as the McDonald brothers and his ex-wife.
  • Based on a True Story: Based on the early years of McDonald's.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Hurt Mac on Dick McDonald's watch and he will consider you an enemy for life. In fact, that's why he doesn't trust Ray. Dick senses that Ray is an Opportunistic Bastard and keeps him on a tight leash with a contract. Sadly, it doesn't work when Ray finds legal loopholes and points out suing him will cause the brothers to go bankrupt. Though it's technically an inversion, as Dick is actually the younger brother.
  • Bittersweet Ending: McDonald's is a rousing success! Kroc is a celebrated business tycoon who lives happily with the new wife he stole from a business partner. In the process, the McDonald brothers have been used and screwed out of their share of the profits while getting enough money for retirement, and Kroc's ex-wife gets no piece of the empire after all her years of standing by him.
  • Blasphemous Boast: Ray compares the Golden Arches to both the American Flag and the Christian cross, and suggests that McDonald's could be as equal of a communal point in society as a church.
  • Bookends: The film begins and ends with Ray facing the camera trying to give a speech and with a heavy emphasis on persistence.
  • Burger Fool: While based on a burger joint, the focus is not on the people actually making the burgers and so this trope is averted, believe it or not.
  • Break the Cutie: Ray divorcing Ethel (as he finds their marriage boring and pointless) and leaving her only their house, car and insurance merely as he wants to leave behind his old life and start anew as a fast food magnate. He vehemently refuses to let her own any shares of McDonald's.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Downplayed since he's mostly doing legal actions, but Ray becomes rather slimy and willing to rewrite history for the sake of money and fame.
  • The Determinator: Ray will stop at nothing to own McDonald's. Persistence is the film's key motif.
  • Didn't Think This Through:
    • Thrice during the brothers' story. They initially planned to bring their stand wholesale into San Bernardino before realizing that the city's main road was fronted by a bridge too low to drive under with the stand-in tow, forcing them to literally halve the building. Second, their opening day as a walk-up was a disaster, as they assumed wrongly that customers would understand to leave their car to place their order, causing massive confusion in the lot. Then when they had a grand re-opening with spotlights adorning the parking lot, they attracted a biblical amount of flies to the lights and drove everyone away in panic.
    • Ray when he signs his contract. He has no power over how the franchises are run and agreed to take a percentage that will barely cover his operating costs. He was so desperate to get a foot in the door at that point that he signed the document immediately after skimming through it.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: While Dick is revamping the Speedee System on a tennis court, he's standing on a ladder waving a yardstick around to direct the employees. He looks just like he's conducting a symphony.
  • Dramatic Irony: Of the real-life sort. The McDonald brothers pride their business on impeccably cooked burgers, cleanliness, and service, unaware what awaits their brand in the future once Ray Kroc gets involved.
  • Erotic Eating: Ray Kroc is a little too into watching Joan stirring a sample of milkshake powder into a glass of water. Not that she minds.
  • Evil Is Petty: Although calling Ray "evil" is an overstatement, after he gains full control of the franchises he buys the McDonald brothers out for a relatively small fee, and makes them a non-binding "handshake deal" to pay them 1% of corporate revenue annually knowing he'll never actually have to do it. He then uses a buried clause in the buyout contract to make them change the name of their restaurant, and builds his own McDonald's right across the street knowing it will knock them out of business. On top of that, he implies through Exact Words that he is, well, the founder of McDonald's and takes sole credit for the successful model. He also leaves his wife who stood by him through many failed ventures and had her house unknowingly mortgaged to finance the venture. He then makes sure she never sees any of the profits from the corporation.
  • Exact Words:
    • Ray Kroc was, in fact, the founder of The McDonald's Corporation — a separate legal entity that manages the land, supplies, marketing, etc. for the restaurant chain founded by the McDonald brothers.
    • When Ray agrees to buy out the brothers at the end of the film, one of the conditions the latter party states is that Kroc won't be able to acquire the San Bernardino location. Kroc agrees to this, but the conditions of the contract state that they won't be able to use any variation of the word "McDonalds", leading to them looking on sadly as the name is removed from the sign atop the restaurant. To add insult to injury, Kroc later expands the chain into San Bernardino anyway — at a site located right across the street from the original location. This causes the M restaurant to go out of business. Even worse, the brothers said they were retiring; the restaurant was for their loyal employees.
  • Food as Bribe: When Ray gets turned down for a loan from the bank because of insufficient equity on his home, Ray tries to tempt the mortgage officer with just how delectable McDonalds food is. The officer doesn't give in, leading to Harry Sonneborn pulling a Deus ex Machina offering Ray to invest in land.
  • Foregone Conclusion: We all know that McDonald's will become a fast food empire, Ray Kroc will rise to wealth and McDonald's will serve ice cream in their milkshakes again after the film makes a big deal of it.
  • Gold Digger: Implied with Joan. She's already married when she meets Ray, and has no issue with him coming on to her. As the epilogue shows, the two marry in the end.
  • Good Capitalism, Evil Capitalism: The film as a narrative, is a telling (though with some Artistic License) of how Ray Kroc became the owner of the McDonald's franchise. The McDonald brothers worked hard to turn a few of their prior businesses into the little Hamburger joint enjoyed by the locals. Krok offers to expand them to go national, but eventually makes himself the face of the company and does practices the brothers despise until everyone associates the Simple, yet Awesome business with him, at which point the brothers are basically forced to sell their company.
  • Handshake of Doom: As Ray Kroc finalizes the deal with the McDonald brothers to sell the franchise to him, he tells them that key portions of the agreement, including getting to keep their original restaurant and their millions paid to them, cannot be legally put into print and have to be settled with a handshake. The McDonald brothers, realizing this means they will never see the money, resignedly shake Kroc's hand.
  • Hard-Work Montage:
    • Dick McDonald when he refines the Speedee System on a tennis court with some chalk and his staff miming their jobs.
    • Ray Kroc when he goes from town to town pitching franchise opportunities to churches, synagogues, fraternal lodges, and basically anyone who will listen.
  • Hero Antagonist: As greed overtakes Ray and he starts making slimy and rotten moves, he becomes the villain of the piece and the McDonald brothers are the wholesome (non-powdered milk) heroes opposing him.
  • How We Got Here: The McDonald brothers explain their legacy of businesses to Ray over dinner. Furthermore, the entire film also serves as one for Kroc's rise to power.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Ray says he heard Mac collapsing over the phone after the latter yelled at him for the plan to steal the restaurant chains from them. He even looks guilty when visiting him at the hospital, as both brothers are glaring at him. Then he engages in a scheme to buy the restaurant name from them.
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • The brothers tell Ray their business model was not exactly a success out of the gate; customers got angry and confused when they realized they had to get out of their car to order and grab their food, causing Mac to immediately doubt their idea. Similarly, the brothers are dubious about Kroc's franchise plans, noting that there was no way to oversee quality control over restaurants beyond their reach and even the five already expanded beyond San Bernardino failed.
    • Ray Kroc complains to one of his franchisees about having lettuce on the hamburger. Years later several sandwiches would have lettuce on them.
    • The brothers pare down their menu to just burgers, fries, and drinks — which constituted 87% of their sales — to streamline service and wait times. McDonald's faced sales drops in The New '10s in part because an overexpanded menu had amplified wait times and lousy customer service, forcing new brass to come in and pare down the menu again.
    • Kroc is furious when he finds out franchisees have added extraneous items to the menus without his consent, like fried chicken, corn on the cob, and biscuits. In the long history of McDonald's, nearly every attempt to expand outside their forte — pizza, spaghetti, buffalo wings, etc. — have been notorious, costly, abject failures. One of the few exceptions would be Chicken McNuggets, which have been a staple of the McDonald's menu since the 1980s.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Remember that the McDonald brothers were taking no risk in their franchising venture with Ray. Ray was putting up all the money, taking all the risk, and doing all the work. Furthermore, Dick McDonald was so timid in his business decisions that he vetoed every move Ray suggested to improve the franchises. The Brothers didn't have to do anything, and received royalty checks as a result. Ray (correctly) saw that they were sitting on a gold mine and that if they didn't act quickly someone else would just copy their model and become the dominant force in the fast food industry. Since the brothers essentially had all of the control with none of the risk, Ray felt justified in exploiting a loophole so he could take greater control of the franchises and vastly increase his profits. Unfortunately, many of his antics and later acts in this process just come across as Evil Is Petty.
    • In their final confrontation, when commenting on how the name "McDonalds" is perfect for such an operation, Ray notes that it's the kind of name which suggests its owner will never get pushed around, leading Dick to bitterly note that it's clearly not true in his case. Ray immediately retorts that Dick currently has a check for $1.3 million in his pocket that clearly says otherwise; he might have got outplayed but still fought his corner, and if nothing else still got what is by any reasonable standard a very generous payout as a consolation prize.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Everything that Ray does to his first wife reeks of this. He accuses her of not supporting him in his first scene, causing her to storm off in a rage. He later uses their country club dinners to recruit franchise owners, cancels the membership against her wishes, and uses her as an unpaid employee to get proper leaders in each one. The final moment is when he asks for a divorce, at least sounding regretful that he's hurting her once more. Then he refuses to give her even a single share in McDonald's.
    • Ray sends the McDonald brothers a packet of powdered milkshake (which they vehemently oppose using in the chain) just to be an asshole.
    • Later, Ray unloads on the brothers, describing in detail just how far he is willing to go to get what he wants. It also cements his Face–Heel Turn for the audience.
    Ray: If my competitor was drowning, you know what I'd do? I'd stick a hose in his mouth.
    • Even his visit to Mac in the hospital! His "get well card" contains a blank check, as an ultimatum buy them out. Even under these circumstances, he's relentless about getting the brothers out of the picture. He didn't even have the decency to wait and address the matter when Mac was discharged.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: When the brothers finally realize it's a hopeless cause and capitulate at last. That, plus Mac is already in the hospital.
    Mac: We will never be rid of him.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Harry Sonneborn is the one who tells Ray how to earn more money on his franchises, and cut out the brothers. The epilogue reveals that he's the only person in the whole story who faced karma; after a disagreement with Ray, he left the corporation. This meant he couldn't share in the millions' worth of profits (though it's worth noting that, by the time Sonneborn left, McDonalds was already phenomenally successful throughout the United States).
  • Loophole Abuse: How Ray begins to assume further control of the brand, by owning the land on which the restaurants stand rather than the restaurants themselves.
    Ray [to Dick]: Your control ends at the door, and at the floor.
  • Love at First Sight: When Ray Kroc and Joan Smith meet during an investment meeting, to the point it takes only mere minutes before Rollie Smith, Joan's husband, is clearly uncomfortable. After that, Ray's wife Ethel is an afterthought to him.
  • OOC Is Serious Business: When the usually mild-mannered Mac finally grabs the phone from Dick and starts berating Ray, he has clearly had enough. Even Dick is clearly alarmed and taken aback to see his brother exploding so furiously. Unfortunately it causes him to go into diabetic shock.
  • Our Founder: While Ray Kroc is indeed the father of The McDonald's Corporation, it's treated as ironic when he starts calling himself the "Founder" as it's shown that he didn't found the original restaurant or the system that made it successful. The McDonald brothers bristle when they see his card.
  • Perpetual Frowner: Dick. He always looks like he just got done sucking lemons. A sharp contrast to Mac, who always seems to wear a warm and affable smile... except when dealing with you know who.
    • Momentary averted for Dick when they finalize the floor design (at the tennis court): he's downright giddy with glee! (Or at least as giddy as Dick gets)
  • Pet the Dog: Despite otherwise being portrayed as a Corrupt Corporate Executive, Ray visits the McDonalds brothers in the hospital after Mac's heart attack and gives them some flowers and a blank check as a get-better present.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    Ray: Mac, I'm the president and C.E.O. of a major corporation with land holdings in 17 states...You run a burger stand in the desert. I'm national. You're fucking local.
  • Principles Zealot: The McDonald brothers are portrayed as caring more about the ideals of their restaurant than practicalities. They want to make a good living, but only by adhering to strict standards of quality and ethics. Kroc, on the other hand, wants to build an empire by any means necessary.
  • Product Placement: While ostentiably being a story about "founding" McDonald's and the in-fights that happend along, the film wastes no time to start glamourising the company and its products.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: The whole film is about how Ray went from a salesman with an admirable work ethic and drive to succeed into a ruthless real estate owner who screws over his business partners.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The McDonald brothers stare somberly at their checks after Ray buys them out. They both got $1.35 million — about $8 million in 2016 money — a king's ransom each. But their dreams have been shattered, and the business that they poured their whole lives into has been stolen, exploited and cheapened. (At the least, Dick in real life had the sense to not badmouth what happened, sensing it wasn't worth it.)
    • Worse, they had to cede the royalties provision to a handshake deal. Considering their dealings with Ray, both brothers realize Ray is pretty unlikely to honor it. He doesn't.
  • Real-Person Epilogue / "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The film ends in 1970. As this is a true story, the film informs the audience on what happened to the key players between then and 2016. They also showed footage of the real Ray Kroc in an interview at the end of film just before the epilogue.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech: Ray gives a cruel one to Mac: he makes it clear that he (Ray) is calling the shots here, and that the brothers have absolutely no leverage on him. When Mac indignantly stands up for integrity and honesty again, Ray gets even nastier. It rattles Mac so badly that he goes into diabetic shock.
    • Subverted when Dick later attempts this on Ray that Ray didn't invent any of this enterprise. He just took advantage of other people's ideas, development and hard work. Ray is unfazed by this, pointing out Ray the ultimate winner, so who cares how he got here?
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Dick's Red to Mac's Blue. Dick is quick tempered and immediately suspicious that Kroc is more dangerous than he appears to be. Mac acts as an Audience Surrogate and is more calm and enthusiastic about Kroc. Eventually though, Kroc crosses a line that flares up the chill Mac and leads him to having a heart attack.
  • Rule of Three: It took three tries for the McDonalds brothers to launch their new Speedee System. The first attempt had customers expecting the drive-in system. The second attempt had them hosting a grand re-opening with spotlights and clowns, that ended in disaster when a biblical number of flies converged on the restaurant. Finally, they were making plans to return to the old system when a young boy asked for a bag of burgers. Mac gave them to him on the house. Then a car pulled up, and followed the boy's example of coming up to order. At that point, McDonald's became a hit.
  • Sexless Marriage: Ray and Ethel have this. They barely talk to each other, even in bed. The only use Ray ever saw in her was her Country Club membership card to attract wealthy investors. Once Ray acquires the minimum capital he needs for his enterprise, he divorces her leaving her merely the house, car and insurance policy but Ray gets to keep all his riches as CEO of McDonald's while she is written out of any of his shares in the company.
  • Scenery Porn: Ray's drive down Route 66 has a lot of scenic landscapes.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: "Contracts are like hearts. They're made to be broken." When the brothers reply that they'll sue, Ray tells them outright that they could try, and that if the case made it to court they would probably win, but also that he has so much money at this point that he can easily bury them in legal costs and they'd bankrupt themselves in the attempt.
  • Shown Their Work: The film really captures the 1950s scene with good immersion.
    • Similarly, there is a surprising amount of depth regarding entrepreneurship and the process of designing a new business venture.
  • Sibling Team: The McDonald brothers. In real life Dick lived another 27 years after Mac died. It's very sad when you see how close they are in the film, and really were in real life.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: Ray becomes more unhinged the further his empire grows, but the ending indicates that he may be feeling some remorse after all given the rather somber tone at the end.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: Near the end of the film, Dick McDonald asks Ray Kroc why he didn't just steal their idea. He had already been given the grand tour of how they do everything behind the counter, so it would have been simpler for him to start his own restaurant using their system. Ray Kroc then says that it's the "McDonald's" name that kept him from doing that, as nobody would want to eat at a place called "Kroc's". Ray points out that he couldn't have been the first person to get a look at their kitchen; all other imitators would've failed because they all lack the brand recognition that McDonald's has.
  • Take That!: Dick McDonald not only rages about instant shake mix, but at the thought of a restaurant bearing his name using frozen French fries. While McDonald's has switched back to using real ice cream in their shakes, they have used frozen French fries for decades and continue to do so. Since Dick is presented as the moral center of the pre-Kroc chain, it comes across as a stinging jab at the company as it stands today.
    Dick: If phony powered milkshake is your idea of progress, you have a profound misunderstanding of what McDonald's is about.
  • Title Drop: Via business card at the film's conclusion, much to the dismay of the McDonald brothers.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: "Evil" is a strong word for Ray, but as his rise to power continues, it becomes clear that Ray has lose all interest in even attempting to come across as a nice guy to anyone under him, which is very few people by that point. He willfully flouts Dick and Mac's wishes, divorces his wife when he tires of her, and boasts that he is going to do whatever he wants and there is no one who can stop him. The fact that he even steals the wife of one of his investors by the end just shows how parasitic he has become.
  • You're Not My Type: Played for laughs during the first meeting between Ray and the McDonalds brothers.
    Ray: I want to take you out to dinner!
    Dick: Well, you're not really my type.
    Ray: No, you and your brother. I want to hear your story.
  • Villain Protagonist: Ray is presented something like this; he's the main character of the story, the Character Development he goes through makes him increasingly ruthless and venal, and the narrative presents him as a rather unhanded opponent towards two honest and upstanding businessmen as he goes from entering into partnership with them, to undermining them for the sake of profit, to essentially stealing their business model and name.