Hollywood’s Obsession With Bad Founders Makes For Great TV

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.”

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Cedars Sinai Health Ventures’ Maureen Klewicki on How Tech Is Changing Health Care

Minnie Ingersoll
Minnie Ingersoll is a partner at TenOneTen and host of the LA Venture podcast. Prior to TenOneTen, Minnie was the COO and co-founder of $100M+ Shift.com, an online marketplace for used cars. Minnie started her career as an early product manager at Google. Minnie studied Computer Science at Stanford and has an MBA from HBS. She recently moved back to L.A. after 20+ years in the Bay Area and is excited to be a part of the growing tech ecosystem of Southern California. In her space time, Minnie surfs baby waves and raises baby people.
Maureen Klewicki
Image courtesy of Maureen Klewicki

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Cedars Sinai Health Ventures’ Maureen Klewicki talks about price transparency for health care, the labor shortage crisis and emerging models of health care.

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Have a Look Inside Amazon's New Store in Glendale

Drew Grant

Drew Grant is dot.LA's Senior Editor. She's a media veteran with over 15-plus years covering entertainment and local journalism. During her tenure at The New York Observer, she founded one of their most popular verticals, tvDownload, and transitioned from generalist to Senior Editor of Entertainment and Culture, overseeing a freelance contributor network and ushering in the paper's redesign. More recently, she was Senior Editor of Special Projects at Collider, a writer for RottenTomatoes streaming series on Peacock and a consulting editor at RealClearLife, Ranker and GritDaily. You can find her across all social media platforms as @Videodrew and send tips to drew@dot.la.

Amazon Style Glendale
Image by Joshua Letona

Starting today, Glendale’s most meme-able outdoor mall, The Americana at Brand, will be home to the Amazon Style store—the ecommerce giant’s first foray into brick-and-mortar apparel retail. We got an early sneak peak inside the new digs (located on the corner with Sprinkles Cupcakes, next to H&M and the Apple store) and were able to try out some of its tech-enabled features, which—as ever with Amazon—seek to make the act of shopping as easy as possible.

1. It’s Bigger Than It Looks—Even From the Inside

The floor is massive—laying out original products from Amazon’s own apparel lines alongside name brands like Theory, Adidas and Calvin Klein, as well as several other lines that have up until now only existed online. But the actual store is much larger than the two floors that most customers will only ever see.

Amazon Style is just the front—the homepage, if you will—behind which a large warehouse facility keeps a gigantic surplus of inventory. A floor-to-ceiling glass window on the main floor gives shoppers just a peak behind the scenes, as employees help load industrial-sized elevators with racks of goods to send upstairs to the dressing rooms.

2. Online Shopping IRL

When perusing the store’s bouquet of cottagecore maxi dresses, Kendall & Kylie blazers and, yes, a whole section dedicated to Y2K apparel, one doesn’t just pick an item off the rack and take it with you while you shop. Instead, each rack has a barcode that you can scan via the Amazon Shopping app, which has your sizes pre-loaded from previous purchases. (Though you can, of course, opt for a different size if you choose.) That cues an AI-enabled algorithm to start searching through the store’s warehoused catalog and zip the desired item over to the second floor, where the dressing room provides its own glimpse into the future of shopping.

The store also boasts a version of The Drop, a Style staple that allows online customers to shop an entire influencer-curated collections for a 30-hour flash window.

3. Changing Stations of the Future—Today

Your phone also acts as your keycard to get into your personal dressing room. To prevent waiting, you are put in a virtual cue the moment you scan your first item; should your screen prompt that your room is ready while you’re still shopping, a press of a button allows you to hold your spot in the queue while freeing up the room for someone else. (I have no idea how any of this works if your phone dies; ostensibly it can’t, and you will be forced to go home empty-handed—or worse, to The Cheesecake Factory while your device charges.)

Amazon Style’s dressing rooms offer a tech-enabled twist to trying on clothes.Image by Joshua Letona

The changing room is like its own parlor trick. Designed to look like a walk-in closet, one wall has a full length mirror and a giant touchscreen while another has all the clothes you scanned in your style and size preference. Expect to see a few surprises in there, as the algorithm picks out other stuff you might want to try on based on your picks. It would be spooky if it wasn’t so convenient—an IRL mashup of the online retailer’s “Recommended Based on Your Purchases” and “Frequently Bought Together” features.

If an item doesn’t fit quite right or you want to see how a skirt looks in blue instead of black, just tap the touchscreen to request a variant. Or an entirely new outfit, as the screen makes available everything in the facility. Then just bring it down to checkout...perhaps the wildest part of this ride.

4. Palming the Bucks

Checking out of Amazon Style’s flagship store is what really blew my mind—although apparently it’s because I haven’t been to one of the Amazon Go, Amazon Fresh or Whole Foods locations where cashless checkouts have been an option in select locations since 2020

I assumed you would just walk out the door with it, because I watch Saturday Night Live sketches for news. While the Go payment option isn't available at Amazon Style, there are several checkout options to keep the experience as frictionless and non-cumbersome as possible.

In one scenario, you take the clothes you want out of the dressing room, and go directly to Amazon’s palm-enabled checkout kiosks. That’s right: register on the spot for an Amazon One account, and you need merely to wave your hand over a little black device that reads your palm and charges your on-file payment method. Super convienent for everyone except $10 boardwalk psychics, who are about to be put out of business.

For the more traditional set, you still have the option of paying via credit card or cash.

Shoppers can check out of Amazon Style with the wave of a palm. Image by Joshua Letona

5. Supply & Demand & Return

Amazon Style’s brick-and-mortar location opens up a variety of new ways to shop, return and exchange clothing. For instance, you can order a load of clothes online and pick them up in the store; anything you don’t want can be returned in the store without you ever having to print a shipping label.

See something you like but don’t have time to try it on? Just scan the barcode, pick it up at the front of the store and pay on your way out without ever going into a dressing room.

The Amazon Shopping app also boasts a Deals feature, which automatically sorts for the best price on items to help customers either save money (or believe they are).

While Glendale is home to the only Style store so far, Amazon isn’t ruling out more locations. With fewer retailers able to afford rents on America’s main strips and shopping malls, Amazon’s resources—and its unique position at the intersection of tech and retail—make it easy to envision more Style stores on the horizon.

A Look Inside Amazon's New Retail Store in Glendale

Image by Joshua Letona

Gaming Will Keep Growing Despite Economic Woes, Netflix Exec Says

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.

Gaming Will Keep Growing Despite Economic Woes, Netflix Exec Says
Photo courtesy of Netflix

The economic headwinds that are hurting tech companies these days won’t halt gaming’s growing popularity, according to Netflix Vice President of Games Mike Verdu.

During a panel discussion Tuesday at the Montgomery Summit conference in Santa Monica, Verdu said the roughly 3 billion people who currently play video games will continue to grow in number. He agreed that gaming can even be countercyclical—meaning that the industry can sometimes do better during tough economic conditions. And he predicted that the industry will continue to see more consolidation as tech and media giants, including Netflix, gobble up game developers.

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