Hollywood is betting big on the wrong entrepreneur
“I’m not a bad guy,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) insists at the end of “The Social Network,” the 2010 film that defined the cultural response to young tech billionaires. Zuckerberg’s thoughtful lawyer (Rashida Jones), a made-up persona who is largely used to judge Zuckerberg’s personality, assures him that she doesn’t think he’s a jerk: “You’re trying so hard to be one. a.”
Twelve years later, this ambivalence towards the titans of technology has resolved itself. The new consensus is that there is indeed something wrong with these people. Consider the new Showtime limited series “Super Pumped,” which charts the rise and fall of Uber founder Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). As Kalanick scours the tech scene, John Zimmer, the measured founder of rival Lyft, diagnoses Kalanick’s problem and his superpower: “You’re not human enough.”
“Super Pumped” (based on the book by Mike Isaac, a New York Times reporter) comes amid a wave of series about bad entrepreneurs – characters who exemplify the illusions of start-up hype as they attract investors to fund ideas that turn out to be stupid, bad or fraudulent. In Hulu’s “The Dropout,” Amanda Seyfried plays Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos who dons a black turtleneck and claims she developed technology that can diagnose diseases with a single drop of blood. In Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed,” Jared Leto plays Adam Neumann, the weirdly stocky WeWork founder who upends a $47 billion valuation for a slew of coworking spaces he says is a global awareness movement.
Even “Inventing Anna,” Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix series focusing on SoHo con artist Anna Delvey (Julia Garner), feels sympatico. Delvey, whose real name is Anna Sorokin, floats through the millennial start-up scene with her untraceable European accent, clashing with pharmaceutical brother Martin Shkreli and Fyre Festival fraudster Billy McFarland as she tries ( but mostly fails) to convince investors that she is a German heiress who is starting an exclusive club she named after herself.
These series range from the tedious (“Inventing Anna” makes Delvey’s deceptions as boring as the bus ride to Rikers Island) to the sublimely bizarre (when Seyfried confronts a lipstick-smeared mirror, she brings the story’s energy original Joker to Silicon Valley’s most notorious girlboss). By watching them together, they create a shared universe in which scam and entrepreneurship collide in a chaotic portrait of American decline. Dotted throughout the shows are movie stars playing rich crackpots, maximalist title cards demystifying financial dealings, private jet meltdowns, dodgy hair makeovers, vomit-stained staff parties and plenty of self-aggrandizing comparisons. with Steve Jobs.
The fake heiress who scammed New York’s rich
Anna Sorokin, whose story is now revisited in Netflix’s “Inventing Anna,” was convicted of theft of services and grand larceny in 2019.
Business story lines always spill into each other. In “The Dropout,” Theranos partners discuss a new app that “lets you pay for a taxi on your phone”; in “WeCrashed,” Neumann watches on TV as Kalanick is ousted from Uber’s board; in “Inventing Anna”, Delvey’s attorney operates out of a WeWork.
The central characters often appear as mirror images: as Kalanick amass cynical employees who want to break stuff, Neumann invites his deluded staff to “build tomorrow”. And while Holmes artificially lowers his voice to project a male presence, Delvey uses a voice modulation app to impersonate the German manager of his nonexistent trust fund. Their arcs all look like electrified versions of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, where utopian dreams give way to wild rides before turning into ruin.
Most of these topics are already intensely familiar. Although stories of corporate excess have long captivated the media and entertainment industries, never have headlines been torn as rapaciously (and quickly) as they are today. Since Holmes’ claims were exposed as a fantasy in the Wall Street Journal in 2015, for example, his downfall has been retconned in a book-length expose, several podcasts, a feature-length HBO documentary, a market online of ironic fan material, “The Dropout” and, perhaps one day, a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, which remains in development.
“The Social Network” covered the origins of Facebook in just two hours, but this new class of entrepreneur is retreated through hour-long episodes that drop week after week. Even as these shows cast skepticism on speculative tech bubbles, they strive to inflate their own bubble, as the proliferation of streaming services pumps money into prestige limited series to lure viewers and weed out competitors. They feel calibrated to play the market in the same way: securing intellectual property tested on a recent scandal, recruiting very famous people to pose as players, pacing the story according to a limited series program (long enough to promote binge-watching, brief enough to lock in busy celebrities and justify budgets), and then hope subscribers don’t cancel after the finale.
While HBO’s “Succession” has cleverly imbued its bad deal story with the regenerative powers of a sitcom, flipping and resetting its chessboard each season, the limited series is indebted to its unyielding arc. It tends to unfold like a morality piece, with a firm resolve signaling a lesson learned. These shows deal with the same era in the same form through the same zeitgeist, and they come to similar conclusions. The first is that the line between crooks like Delvey and titans like Kalanick is thin, and entire systems of power are involved in their rise. As one character from “Inventing Anna” puts it, speaking with the cold clarity of a Shondaland oracle: “Everyone here is running a game. Everyone here has to score. Everyone here is hustling.
But while “The Social Network” implies that Zuckerberg was taken aback by the dizzying stakes of the start-up scene, these shows suggest that some people are drawn to that scene. because they are ruthless egomaniacs. The system rewards them — “go crazier,” SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son advises Neumann — as long as the company’s valuation increases. The problem only arises when the executive’s erratic behavior attracts negative press attention and threatens to scare the market and shake the fortunes of stakeholders.
Often the bad behavior is about mistreating women. As Apple’s Tim Cook (Hank Azaria) warns Kalanick (the guy who thought it was a good idea to say “Boober” to a reporter), women are “the canary in the coal mine” of corporate dysfunction. . While “The Social Network” argues that Zuckerberg kicked Facebook into casual (and vastly exaggerated) misogyny, rampant sexism is now being touted as the tech industry’s defining quality — a weakness that threatens to topple bad men and, sometimes to raise the wrong women. . In “The Social Network,” women are relegated to the role of crazy girlfriend or comely intern, and while that may reflect Harvard and Silicon Valley jingoism, it also reinforces it. A refreshing development of these new stories is that women too are allowed to blossom into historical narcissists of the world, often under the guise of countering this chauvinism.
Holmes rises by courting the admiration of, per episode title, “Old White Men,” but also by positioning herself as a feminist triumph who speaks fervently about women raising women and, laughably, fighting against the scourge of “impostor syndrome”. “WeCrashed” gives the same time to Neumann’s woo-woo wife, Rebekah Paltrow Neumann (Anne Hathaway), who announces at a corporate retreat that women should help men “manifest their calling in life. and then manifests her own call through her husband’s company, firing employees with “bad energy” and starting a WeWork school to indoctrinate children in conscious entrepreneurship. And Arianna Huffington’s ‘Super Pumped’ version is played by Uma Thurman as the suspicious operator who flatters Kalanick – “Travis and I share a connection rarely found in this world men have built,” purrs she – and rises higher in the company as other women sink.
Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington in Travis Kalanick’s story – it sounds like Hollywood word salad, but it’s captivating nonetheless. Part of the appeal of these shows is the lack of curiosity they create when they assign a movie star to a name in the news. While we may be all too familiar with, say, Elizabeth Holmes, we’ve never seen her story interpolated by an actor, and Hollywoodification promises to reveal something that journalism can’t always provide: insight into what, exactly, is wrong with her. Seyfried plays Holmes as serious, driven, vulnerable, and hypercritical before she becomes cold, manipulative, and despotic. I don’t know if this portrayal is true, but I suspect that with an actor as insightful as Seyfried, Holmes may seem more complex than she actually is.
Recently, the absurdity of venture capital has been overshadowed by the spectacle of cryptocurrency, and now crypto stories are turned into content even faster than their predecessors. A few days after the arrests of Ilya Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan, dubbed the “Bonnie and Clyde of Bitcoin” and accused of a scheme to launder billions, the story had been optioned for a series. It’s being developed by Forbes Entertainment, the financial magazine’s production arm that until recently allowed Morgan to pontificate on its website as a ForbesWomen columnist, offering “expert advice on how to protect a business from cybercriminals”. It’s the latest twist on Hollywood’s bet on intellectual property: help build the myth, then dramatize the downfall.