The Founder is a 2016 biographical drama film directed by John Lee Hancock and written by Robert Siegel. The film stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc and portrays the story of his acquisition of the McDonald's fast food chain. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch co-star as McDonald's founders Richard and Maurice McDonald.
The film premiered at Arclight Hollywood on December 7, 2016 and will open in the United States on January 20, 2017 by The Weinstein Company.
Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling traveling salesman who currently specializes in selling Prince Castle brand milkshake makers. He has a supportive wife (Laura Dern) and has amassed enough money to live a comfortable, if simple, life but constantly craves more. His frustrations are unambitious restaurant owners and incompetent service in drive-in diners.
After receiving word that a small diner is ordering an unusually large number of milkshake makers from his company, Ray decides to go visit the enterprise in question. What he finds is a highly popular diner by the name of McDonald's. Ray is immediately struck by the fast service, the high-quality food, the novelty of disposable packaging (versus cutlery) and the family-focused customers who regularly consume the food.
Ray meets with the two brothers who own and operate the diner. The older and hard-working Maurice "Mac" McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and the intuitive Richard "Dick" McDonald (Nick Offerman). Ray is given a tour of the kitchens and immediately is struck by the strong work ethic displayed by the employees. Dick explains the high-quality food and lightning-fast service are the backbones of their diner. Ray takes the brothers out to dinner and is told the origin story of McDonald's. The brothers relate how they grew up poor, had dreams of going to Hollywood, were struck by the Depression, started their own hot dog stand and gradually expanded the traditional business model to create a highly productive diner that caters to the needs of the consumer at a low cost without sacrificing quality.
Sensing a long-awaited opportunity, Ray excitedly tells the brothers the following day that franchising the store is a must. Dick calmly explains that the brothers had attempted this very thing some time before but the enterprise quickly collapsed due to an inability to maintain strict quality control. The ensuing strain triggered serious health issues for Mac related to high stress and diabetes. Disheartened by the brothers' refusal to franchise, Ray leaves but takes note of a painting of a neon-lit McDonald's adorned with two bright yellow spherical shapes. Dick reveals this painting was to be the basis of the franchise stores and although one was constructed, the plan was abandoned. He also explains that the yellow shapes are the "golden arches" of McDonald’s.
Rejected by the brothers, Ray returns to his traveling sales but experiences the frequent sights of American flags and religious crosses. Ray confronts the brothers and delivers a passionate speech about how the golden arches could and should be the new symbol of America and that the brothers owe it to the country to have their restaurant in every city. Although the brothers are wary of Ray, they concede support to the notion of franchising but only on the condition that Ray agree to a complex contract that stipulates that all business decisions must go through the brothers. Ray happily signs the contract and commences work.
Ray quickly finds gaining a financial loan difficult (due to bankers' familiarity with Ray's past entrepreneurial failures) and encounters difficulty with getting the brothers' approval for complex building plans. An agreement for funds from the bank is eventually made but only when Ray agrees to mortgage his home (without his wife's knowledge or consent).
New McDonald's restaurants are gradually set up across the country and despite difficulties training staff to meet quality standards, the franchise is steadily put into motion. Feeling emboldened by this, Ray and his wife attend their high-class social club and convince wealthy male friends to invest in new franchises.
Although the brothers continue to express hesitancy with Ray's over-eagerness at expansion, things appear to be going well. However, Ray eventually visits a franchised McDonald's owned by one of his rich friends and is dismayed to find the restaurant in a state of disrepair and selling uncharacteristic McDonald's products such as fried chicken and corn on the cob (even the standard burgers are in a low-quality state). Ray becomes livid at this betrayal of quality and angrily severs all connections with the wealthy franchise owners.
Ray eventually hits upon the idea of recruiting hard-working middle-class individuals to invest in and manage various McDonald's restaurants. This idea proves to be hugely successful as, in contrast to the indifferent rich owners, these new owners are more than willing to follow each of Ray's demands. Business begins to boom although the McDonald brothers begin to note that their original restaurant is no longer referred to as "the first McDonald's".
Things with McDonald's start to become successful enough that Ray is personally contacted by wealthy restaurant owner Rollie Smith (Patrick Wilson). Ray is flattered and enthusiastic about this new arrangement although he proves to be far more fascinated by Rollie's wife Joan (Linda Cardellini). The two appear to share an immediate connection to one another.
Although business is rapidly expanding, Ray becomes infuriated that the high costs of running the McDonald's chain and his strict contract means that he and the McDonald brothers receive little to no profit. Ray is further aggravated when Dick flat out refuses to renegotiate any part of their contract. Ray turns his attention to the largest cost of the chain of restaurants, which is the high expenditure spent on purchasing and maintaining the vast quantities of ice cream required for McDonald's famous milkshakes.
Joan and Rollie meet with Ray and Joan pitches a method to dramatically cut costs. By purchasing a vastly cheaper powdered milk for the shakes (as opposed to buying and freezing the ice cream) costs could become significantly cheaper without necessarily sacrificing much quality. Ray is highly enthused about this but is met with Dick's horror and disgust that one of the central pillars of their menu could be cheapened with powdered milk.
Financial difficulties for Ray continue to mount and to compound matters; his wife discovers the mortgage taken out on their home. Ray personally pleads with the bank for leniency but is denied. While at the bank, Ray fortuitously meets Harry Sonneborn (B. J. Novak), a highly ambitious financial consultant.
Harry reviews Ray's business and finds that although McDonald's is profitable, Ray is stuck with a poor financial arrangement and a strict contract that limits his personal control. Harry immediately pinpoints the fact that the franchise owners lease the blocks of land used to build the restaurant from a third party. Harry instead suggests that Ray instead set his attention to buying up these small chunks of land through a separate company. This would mean that essentially instead of "taking 4% off a burger sale", Ray would instead become a real estate owner able to dictate the ownership of the land and make vastly more money. As an added bonus, Ray realizes such an arrangement would effectively begin limiting the control the McDonald brothers would have over their own franchise.
The McDonald brothers express annoyance and betrayal at Ray's new real estate company but Ray coolly tells them that as the real estate venture is technically a separate company, the brothers have no say in the matter. Feeling emboldened by his new revenue and growing control, Ray goes ahead and makes the powdered milk the standard for every McDonald's store (bar the one owned by the brothers).
Having grown increasingly indifferent to his wife, Ray bluntly requests a divorce during the nightly dinner. Ray immediately sets about ensuring that his wife will receive the house and other financial support, but will not receive a single share of McDonald's stock. He separately begins meeting with lawyers in order to get him completely out of his contract with the McDonald brothers by any means necessary.
Matters reach a head when Ray triumphantly mails a packet of powdered milk to the brothers. Dick and Mac are enraged upon seeing that the letterhead used is now proclaiming a new company called "The McDonald's Corporation" and proudly uses Dick's golden arches symbol as a logo. The brothers threaten to take Ray to court but Ray merely points out that although he'd probably lose in court, he has enough money and lawyers to drag the case out until the brothers would be forced to declare total bankruptcy. As a result of this conversation, Mac suffers a stress and diabetes kidney failure and is hospitalized.
Ray visits Mac in the hospital and as a gesture of goodwill gifts him with a blank check. Mac is later struck by the prominence of religious crosses in the hospital room and, remembering Ray's earlier comment on how the McDonald's logo would be the new religious symbol, realizes that fighting the now powerful company would be impossible and the brothers elect to settle for a buyout.
The brothers demand three terms to end matters entirely. They request 2.7 million dollars, 1% of all future earnings from the company and full ownership of the original McDonald's restaurant that they personally created. Although Ray privately expresses anger about this, he seemingly agrees to these terms.
At a meeting to sign these terms, Ray pleads that, while he fully intends to provide 1% of all earnings, he can't put this in legal writing due the possibility of spooking current and future investors. He instead offers a handshake deal on this term and the other points are legally signed.
In a bathroom at the lawyer's office, Dick asks Ray why he absolutely had to own the McDonald brothers' chain of diners when he would have found it much simpler to steal their idea and make his own fast food franchise. Ray flatly expresses that he fell in love with the surname "McDonald's". Dick presses him further on this and Ray elaborates that his own last name "Kroc" sounds blunt and untrustworthy, whereas McDonald symbolizes old-fashioned Americana and upon first seeing it, realized he had to own the name at any cost. Dick flatly points out that Ray will never be able to truly own the name but Ray merely smiles and smugly replies "You sure about that?"
This statement is later proven to be accurate when the brothers assume control of their original restaurant and are informed that they are now legally forbidden from using their own last name on the signage (since McDonald's is now an autonomous corporation). To make matters worse, Ray immediately begins construction on a new McDonald's opposite the original store.
His control of the franchise's present and future now complete, Ray sets about rewriting the past, handing out business cards and attending political functions declaring himself "the founder" of McDonald's and telling long-winded stories about how the company was built from the ground up solely by him.
Several blocks of text provide closure to the real-life characters. Harry Sonneborn left the company after disputes with Ray. This caused him to lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars. Harry vowed never to eat at McDonald's again and never publicly spoke of his involvement in the franchise. The McDonald brothers were unable to prove their "handshake agreement" and were thus denied any royalties from the corporation they helped build. The original diner eventually closed due to bankruptcy. Ray and Joan got married and remained happily together until Ray's death in 1984. Joan became a successful businesswoman and philanthropist in her own right and was willed control of McDonald's upon Ray's death. She donated over a billion dollars to charity until her death in 2003. McDonald's continues to thrive worldwide and feeds 1% of the planet Earth's population on a daily basis.