Movie about credit-card woes was to be a comedy

Personal Finance

March 18, 2007|By Eileen Ambrose | Eileen Ambrose,Sun Columnist

Near the beginning of the newly released documentary Maxed Out, we meet Mr. Money. He's a character in a black-and-white 1960 educational film who explains to two teenagers the necessary "three Cs" to obtain credit: capital, capacity and character.

He seems ridiculously old-fashioned. The audience laughs.

An hour and a half later, Mr. Money seems to make a lot of sense. And you wonder, how did the credit-card industry veer so far off from its business model?

Today, it's so easy - maybe too easy - to get credit cards. A jobless college student can have a wallet full of plastic.

"I would like people to understand how this industry transformed itself," says director James Scurlock. "People should come away with being a little angry that the system has become so stacked against them and no one has really been there to advocate for them."

The release of Maxed Out probably couldn't have come at a better time for the director. The movie arrived in theaters just days after a Senate subcommittee held a hearing into the credit-card industry's practices. More hearings may follow.

With so many of us carrying plastic, it's about time for a serious look at whether the card industry's policies are fair.

Granted, no one forces consumers to take out a credit card, and card companies take a risk by essentially giving consumers an unsecured loan. And if you borrow money, you should repay it. Plenty of people regularly pay off balances each month with no problem.

But is it fair that a card issuer can double or triple the interest rate on your credit card if you mail your car payment in late? Or, is it right that you could pay interest on money you don't owe anymore?

Is $39 a reasonable fee if your card payment arrives at 5 p.m. on the due date instead of, say, 3 p.m.?

How does it help consumers to have card terms - which the issuer is free to change - spelled out in exasperatingly small print? And is it really healthy that card companies target unemployed college students armed with little or no financial education?

Scurlock - not to be confused with Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me - didn't start out to critique the credit-card industry. He was looking at making an amusing film about debt.

"It's the universal problem in this country, not just as individuals, but as a country. I was really curious why we can't do better," the 35-year-old says. "I remember I was trying to do something very funny ... a riff on our consumer culture.

"Suicide never entered my mind."

Scurlock's first interview changed the course of the documentary. He talked to an Indiana family whose mother had disappeared after the father ordered the couple's credit reports. The mother apparently used her credit cards to support a gambling addiction and her daughter feared - rightly so - that the mother had taken her own life.

It wasn't the only suicide Scurlock came across.

The subject sounds heavy, and it is. But Scurlock manages to throw in enough absurdities and appearances by Mr. Money to make it humorous and entertaining.

There's a range of characters from Robin Leach ("Nobody would watch Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown") to two students who pay for college by becoming billboards for a credit-card company.

There's also a look at a business that gets little sunlight: debt buyers. These companies buy debt from credit-card companies and try to collect it. One collector notes, it's more effective to call a debtor's relatives than neighbors because that's "more embarrassing" for the debtor.

Among finance industry players featured in the film, the biggest advocate for consumers is a pawnbroker.

"How bizarre is that - a pawnbroker becomes the hero of a movie about debt," Scurlock says.

He doesn't interview any credit-card executives, but it's not for lack of trying. They turned him down, he says. Card company executives do appear in the film in clips from their testimony before a Senate committee a couple of years ago. But the senators don't ask a single question before scurrying off for a vote.

One assumption that consumers often make is that card companies wouldn't give you a credit card unless they knew that you could handle it.

Not true, Harvard Law School professor and bankruptcy expert Elizabeth Warren says in the film. She recalls being invited by a card company to discuss how it can reduce its losses from people who don't repay. Warren says losses can be cut by more than half if the company stopped extending credit to people who plainly can't handle it. That's when an executive tells her that those people are the company's bread and butter.

Scurlock says no one in the film blamed others for their debt problems.

"Everyone in the film will tell you that they screwed up," he says. "The question is: What are they responsible for? Are they responsible for making a mistake and incurring a debt that they should repay plus interest? Or, are they responsible for paying back four times what they borrowed or five times or twice?"

Suddenly after leaving the theater, casually whipping out a credit card for the most minor of purchases doesn't seem like such a good idea.

It is a good idea, though, for parents whose children are headed off to college this year to take their young to see the movie. Teens will be barraged by credit-card offers as soon as they set foot on campus even if they don't have the capacity (one of the three C's) to pay.

Sure, Scurlock uses some extreme cases. But the film may be an eye-opener for parents and teens on what they could be up against.

To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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