'We're Fascinated by Mad Geniuses': How the Startup Horror Story Became a Hollywood Subgenre

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Key art for AppleTV Plus’ “we crashed” starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway.
Courtesy of Apple

Hollywood’s new favorite TV genre is the bad startup founder.

Within the last month alone, streaming services have released a flurry of shows about the rapid rise and fall of real-life tech moguls. There’s “The Dropout” (starring Amanda Seyfried), a Hulu miniseries that tells the origin story of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who went from being the youngest self-made woman billionaire to a potential inmate in federal prison. Showtime’s “Super Pumped” (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) chronicles Travis Kalanick—“TK” to his friends—who resigned as Uber’s CEO in disgrace after a spate of scandals, including his handling of sexual assult allegations.


And last week, Apple TV released “WeCrashed,” an eight-episode drama about WeWork founder Adam Neumann (Jared Leto), whose eccentric behavior and failed initial public offering cost him control of the coworking company.

It’s easy to see why the collapse of unicorn founders makes for good TV, with hubristic and charismatic protagonists who quickly become some of the wealthiest people on the planet—only to fail in epic fashion. These tales of incredible successes and downfalls usually contain a mix of tragedy and comedy, and the fact that they’re true stories with high stakes makes them especially appealing, Hollywood observers say.

“Whether it's in comic books like ‘Doctor Strange’ or whether it's in real life like Steve Jobs, we're fascinated [and] enthralled by mad geniuses,” said Tom Nunan, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “And that's what all of these tech stories have in common.”

WeCrashed — Official Teaser | Apple TV+

The shows also reflect the current zeitgeist around big tech, and companies that have—or promised to—transform the way that people work, shop, and socialize, for better and worse. It was likely only a matter of time before that subject matter seeped its way into TV and movies.

“The shows coming out right now, they have less to do with Hollywood and more to do with where we are as a culture and as an economy,” Drew Crevello, executive producer of “WeCrashed,” told dot.LA.

Crevallo said he hopes these shows cause people to ask questions about why we mythologize “Messianic founders,” and how the huge sums of money sloshing around these companies can lead to reckless decisions. But Crevallo’s fellow executive producer, Lee Eisenberg, said what drew them to the WeWork saga was the love story between Neumann and his wife, Rebekah (played by Anne Hathaway).

“We both love rise-and-fall stories, and are fascinated both by the rise and in the schadenfreude as you watch the fall,” Eisenberg said. “But again, this love story at the center of it felt like such an interesting way into the story.”

The first three episodes of “WeCrashed” dramatize the early days of the couple’s relationship, from a disastrous first date to their wedding. All the while, Neumann rises from a failed entrepreneur hawking baby onesies with knee pads to the top of a successful office coworking startup. Mimicking Neumann’s Israeli accent, Leto portrays the founder as a charismatic but ethically dubious leader, who at one point secures a lease by getting a landlord drunk enough to sign it.

One factor possibly driving the flurry of bad entrepreneur stories is the marketing advantage that comes with well-known intellectual property, said UCLA professor Nunan. Uber, WeWork and Theranos are brands that have spent years in the headlines—and just as there seems to be an infinite number of Marvel movies, there is a growing list of books, podcasts, documentaries and dramas dedicated to big-name startup founders.

The Theranos drama alone inspired a best-selling book, an HBO documentary and a movie project starring Jennifer Lawrence, as well as the ABC News podcast from which the Hulu show is adapted. “Super Pumped,” based on a 2019 book of the same name, plans to focus its second season on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg, who already got the film treatment in 2010’s “The Social Network.” “WeCrashed” is based on a podcast created by West Hollywood-based Wondery, one of two separate podcasts about WeWork.

The First Amendment grants anyone the right to make a movie or show about true events, so long as they don’t knowingly include anything defamatory, experts say. But adapting the show from a book or podcast comes with a few advantages. The sourcing may fill in some gaps in the story or present the facts in a unique way—such as capturing the setting and tone of a dramatic board meeting—and obtaining the rights to those reported accounts adds some extra legal cover.

“No one has a right to any facts, but you can have a right in the way you describe how those facts went down,” said Jesse Saivar, a digital media and IP attorney for Los Angeles-based law firm Greenberg Glusker. “Even if that meeting actually happened, the author of the nonfiction work still put something in to make it a dramatic scene.”

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber (2022) Official Trailer | SHOWTIME

The new crop of shows contain juicy details about the scandalous startups in question that go well beyond a tense meeting. The third episode of “WeCrashed,” for example, spends a considerable amount of time on the binge drinking, coworker hookups and sexual harassment that plagued WeWork. But as Bloomberg recently noted, the show mixes reality and fiction to tell the startup’s story—so while employees did reportedly step on used condoms in WeWork meditation rooms, the Apple TV show takes things a step further by depicting a “f--- closet.”

“When someone's making a show around public events, they have quite a bit of leeway to tell the story,” Saivar said. He noted that public figures need to meet a higher standard to win defamation cases by proving that creators knowingly inserted false information that was harmful.

Eisenberg said “WeCrashed” did not have to obtain rights, citing the countless articles that have been written about WeWork. He said the show hired researchers and spoke with former employees and prospective investors, but did not interview the Neumanns themselves.

“What we wanted to do was tell a 360-degree view, so that's why talking to all those other people was so imperative,” Eisenberg said. “We’ve [already] heard Adam and Rebekah's version of events.”

Some observers have lumped the startup horror stories into a growing TV and movie genre—let’s call it the “Con Artist Story”—that more broadly includes modern-day snake oil salespeople. In February alone, Netflix released two such tales: “Inventing Anna,” about a Russian-born grifter who posed as a German heiress to bilk American elites, and “The Tinder Swindler,” about a guy who stole millions of dollars from women he met on dating apps after fraudulently claiming to be a “prince of diamonds.”

In fact, rival streaming services have previously released dueling stories about the same con artists, virtually simultaneously. In 2019, Netflix and Hulu both aired documentaries about Fyre Festival, the much-hyped music fest that promised guests a luxurious weekend on a Bahamian Island—only to leave them stranded with little more than cheese sandwiches. The festival’s fraudster, Billy McFarland, was eventually sent to prison.

But among the startup founders now being dramatized on TV, only Holmes was convicted of any crimes.

“What's interesting to us about WeWork is that it exists in the gray,” Eisenberg said. ”We want the audience at the end to debate whether or not he was a con man—or if he believed in everything he said.”

🏰 Disney's Epic Investment Stands Out Amidst Gaming Industry Layoffs

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

🔦 Spotlight

In the midst of widespread gaming industry layoffs, a glimmer of positive news emerges as Disney announces a significant move: a $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games. 🏰💰🐭

Image Source: Disney

Disney's $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games, disclosed late Wednesday, signals a strategic alignment aimed at expanding the success of "Fortnite." The deal enhances Epic's growth prospects after financial setbacks, including layoffs, and strengthens the partnership between the two companies. With Disney gaining a larger equity stake in Epic, the collaboration will broaden the integration of beloved Disney franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Avatar into the game, potentially boosting its appeal and longevity. This significant investment underscores Disney's commitment to interactive entertainment and signifies a shift towards games as a primary revenue stream, aligning with the growing trend of digital engagement among younger demographics. Moreover, the potential for crossover sales of physical Disney products within "Fortnite" and the exploration of new content distribution channels are just some of the opportunities arising from this partnership.

For LA tech, the Disney-Epic Games partnership represents a validation of the region's burgeoning tech and gaming ecosystem. The substantial investment in Epic, who maintains a large Los Angeles office with 1,000+ employees (according to LinkedIn), reflects confidence in the LA’s talent pool and innovation potential. Additionally, this partnership between two industry giants fosters an environment for further collaboration, investment, and growth within LA's tech sector. As Disney and Epic Games deepen their ties and explore new avenues for content integration and distribution, it not only elevates the prominence of LA as a tech hub but also stimulates economic growth and job creation in the region. This partnership highlights LA's unique position as a hub where technology and entertainment converge. With its ability to integrate diverse industries, LA is driving innovation and expansion in digital entertainment. 🚀💸🎮

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • ProducePay, a financing and marketplace platform for the fresh produce market, raised a $38M Series D led by Syngenta Group Ventures joined by Commonfund, Highgate Private Equity, G2 Venture Partners, Anterra Capital, Astanor Ventures, Endeavor8, Avenue Venture Opportunities, Avenue Sustainable Solutions, and Red Bear Angels. - learn more
  • Blush, an invite-only dating app that drives users to local businesses on dates, raised a $7M Seed Round from individuals like Naval Ravikant. - learn more
  • Mogul, a startup founded last year that provides an overview of an artist's royalty earnings and identifies areas where money is owed but has not yet been collected, raised a $1.9 million seed round from Wonder Ventures, United Talent Agency, AmplifyLA, and Creator Partners. - learn more
  • Avnos, a hybrid direct air capture startup, raised a $36M Series A led by NextEra Energy and joined by Safran Corporate Ventures, Shell Ventures, Envisioning Partners, and Rusheen Capital Management. - learn more
  • AI.fashion, startup whose mission is to help retailers enhance the online shopping experience by providing consumers with virtual try-ons and personalized fashion recommendations, raised a $3.6M Seed Round led by Neo. - learn more
  • Suma Wealth, startup that aims to demystify financial topics and provide culturally relevant content, virtual experiences, and resources to help Latino users navigate financial challenges and opportunities, raised a $2.2M Seed Round . Radicle Impact led, and was joined by Vamos Ventures, OVO fund and the American Heart Association Impact Fund. - learn more
  • 222, a startup that helps users discover their city and meet new people through unique social experiences, raised a $2.5M Seed Round. Investors included 1517 Fund, General Catalyst, Best Nights VC, Scrum Ventures, and Upfront Ventures. - learn more
  • LimaCharlie, a security operations cloud platform, raised a $10.2M Series A led by Sands Capital. - learn more
  • Polycam, an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors to capture 3D scans of objects, raised an $18M Series A co-led by Left Lane Capital and Adjacent, and joined by Adobe Ventures and individuals like Chad Hurley and Shaun Maguire. -learn more.

LA Venture Funds

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a startup building software to decarbonize logistics for logistics businesses and goods business through a vetted marketplace and optimization software. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $1.5M Pre Seed Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

Venture Waves, Climate Tech Wins, and Silicon Beach's Ongoing Evolution

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Anduril Seeks $1.5B in VC Funds

Defense company Anduril Industries Inc., based in Costa Mesa and founded by Palmer Luckey, is seeking to raise $1.5 billion in fresh funds to boost its valuation to $12.5 billion or more, according to sources quoted by The Information. This fundraising effort, if successful, would mark one of the largest venture capital rounds of the year.

Image Source: Anduril

Anduril recently secured a contract to develop and test small unmanned fighter jet prototypes under the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, beating out major defense companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Alongside General Atomics, Anduril will design, manufacture, and test these aircraft, with a final multibillion-dollar production decision expected in fiscal year 2026. This program aims to deliver at least 1,000 combat aircraft to fly in concert with manned platforms and is part of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance initiative. Central to Anduril’s success in this contract is the Fury autonomous air vehicle, acquired through the purchase of Blue Force Technologies. This victory underscores Anduril's rapid advancement in the defense sector, aligning with Luckey's vision of building faster and more cost-effective defense assets. - learn more

Los Angeles Ranks Number 1 in Emerging Climate Tech Hub

The 2024 Emerging Climate Tech Hubs Report by Revolution highlights Los Angeles as a burgeoning center for climate tech innovation. LA's growth in this sector is driven by its diverse talent pool, strong research institutions, and a culture of environmental consciousness. The city's unique mix of legacy industries, such as entertainment and aerospace, alongside emerging tech companies, positions it as a pivotal player in the climate tech landscape. This shift reflects a broader trend of decentralized climate tech funding across the U.S., reducing the historical dominance of California's traditional hubs. - learn more

Silicon Beach: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Assessing the overall health of the startup market is challenging, especially as venture capital funding has decreased by an average of 61% from 2021 to 2023 across the top VC markets in the US. Markets with robust ecosystems in AI, SaaS, Biotech, Healthtech, and Fintech appear to be weathering the downturn better than those focused on Consumer and Gaming industries, areas where Los Angeles traditionally excels.

Percent Change In VC Funding By Region

CB Insights

LA Times paints a rather bleak outlook on the Los Angeles tech scene noting venture capital funding in Greater Los Angeles plummeted 73% from 2021 to 2022. Silicon Beach, once a vibrant tech corridor, currently faces high vacancy rates and lacks late-stage financiers, especially in the AI sector. However, there are positive signs, including growth in aerospace startups and increased venture capital investment in early 2024, suggesting a potential rebound for LA's tech ecosystem.

While LA may not be exceeding expectations during this period, its tech ecosystem warrants a nuanced evaluation, given the broader market dynamics and its strong performance in specific sectors. Reach out to us with your thoughts.

🚀 SpaceX gears up for another stellar year, active raises, and more

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Happy Friday Los Angeles! You made it through the first week of 2024!

🔦 Spotlight

Elon Musk may be a divisive (albeit entertaining) figure, but the continued success of SpaceX is pivotal for the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and more broadly around the world.

Image Source: SpaceX webcast

What happened with SpaceX in 2023?

  • Elon Musk challenged Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight.
  • SpaceX launched 96 successful missions with its Falcon series of rockets, a 57% increase over its previous annual record.
  • SpaceX conducted two test flights of the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship.
  • Roughly two-thirds of SpaceX's launches in 2023 were devoted to building out Starlink, the company's satellite-internet megaconstellation.
  • Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography was published in September including everything from Musk’s tumultuous relationship with his father to his work ethic and “demon mode”.

Moving forward what can we expect from SpaceX and its controversial founder? Continued innovation pushing the aerospace industry to new limits? Yes. More drama? Without a doubt.

Here is some of what is to come in 2024:

🤝 Venture Deals

Just Announced

Check back next week!

LA Exits

  • CG Oncology, an Irvine, CA-based developer of immunotherapies for bladder cancer, filed for a $100M IPO. It plans to list on the Nasdaq (CGON) with Morgan Stanley as left lead underwriter, and has raised around $317m in VC funding. - learn more
  • McNally Capital agreed to sell Advanced Micro Instruments, a Costa Mesa, CA-based maker of gas analyzers and sensing technologies, to Enpro (NYSE: NPO). - learn more

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a hard-tech startup that is developing a technology for decarbonizing natural gas, is raising a $1.5M Seed Round. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $250K Angel Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

📅 LA Tech Calendar

Sunday, January 7th

Wednesday, January 10th

  • Startup Cafe: Networking with a Kick - Entrepreneurs, Startups, and Tech Enthusiasts join together to meet and connect with like-minded people, industry professionals and investors, while enjoying a nice cup of coffee in Venice at The KINN. This week’s interactive discussion about AI’s evolution in entertainment will feature Dr. Sam Khoze and Rachel Joy Victor.
  • Venice Tech Happy Hour- Join Startup Coil and FoundrHaus Wednesday evening and enjoy the sunset from the rooftop, grab a bite overlooking Abbot Kinney, and mingle with other tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs by the bar on the patio.

Have an awesome event coming up? Reach out to be featured on next week’s Newsletter!

📙 What We’re Reading

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