The bigwigs at movie/TV studios and those pulling the strings at major streaming services are betting big that we’re all remaining enthralled by the stories of failed tech startups and scams. This past year, we’ve seen a slew of docudramas centered around people making money off other people by skirting laws and regulations. You can flip from Netflix to Hulu to Showtime and find an example of Hollywood taking a real-life story of hubris and greed and giving it operatic overtones.
Perhaps it’s more to do with today’s startup environment, but there sure seems to be quite a few hot takes out there about how tech companies are both bamboozling and are being bamboozled.
Taking cues from popular nonfiction books and podcasts, we now have shows like WeCrashed, The Dropout, and Inventing Anna that all have similar themes and style. Even as each focuses on the founders and scammers eventual downfall, we’re supposed to feel like these founders’ ideology could never truly last. Though of course that ignores how even the worst scammers of just a few decades ago never truly leave us. They continue to influence the space, just with less pizazz than they once might have had.
Just wait until the current docu-scene catches up to the current crypto craze, where NFT projects drop like flies and so many false-start projects have run away with peoples’ money the words “rug pull” or “rugged” have become common parlance. As Dr. Brown put it “You’re gonna see some serious shit.”
In no particular order, here’s a rundown of the top shows and movies from the start of this year depicting 2000 to 2010-era startup scandals and other scams, as well as a few movies from the last decade to hammer home that we’re likely not going to stop seeing examples of delusion and greed for a while now.
2 / 9
This series based on the Rebecca Jarvis-hosted ABC podcast of the same name first premiered on Hulu March 3, with the eighth and last episode going up April 7.
It tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes’ ill-fated health-tech startup Theranos. The company claimed it was manufacturing rapid blood tests, but it became apparent a decade later, after defrauding hundreds of millions from investors, that much of their operation was just smoke and mirrors. The team even went so far as to create a fake lab when then-Vice President Joe Biden visited their space. The series was named by the fact that Holmes dropped out of Stanford in 2003 to follow up on her idea for a wearable drug delivery patch.
The show’s part “based on a true story” drama and part black comedy, though not all aspects completely mesh as well as it could throughout the hour-long runtime for each episode. If you’re interested in more about the Theranos story, there’s a book available and a movie in the works starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes. It’s being directed by Don’t Look Up’s Adam McKay.
3 / 9
The Showtime series is a rundown of how ride hailing app Uber and its former CEO Travis Kalanick got their start and how the once-head honcho fell from grace.
Super Pumped is based on the 2019 book by the same name, written by New York Times journalist Mike Isaac, but it takes a hard, Hollywood-esque depiction of Kalanick coming onto the fledgling startup once called UberCab as a mere advisor before taking the reins of the entire company himself. Kalanick’s zany antics as CEO and his eventual fall are depicted in grand, dramatic moments, with some scenes playing up the smarmy nature of the business (like when the team avoids paying city transit fees by simply removing “Cabs” from the name).
It’s got a pretty stacked cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the eponymous Kalanick, Uma Thurman is Huffington Post co-founder and Uber board member Arianna Huffington, and Kyle Chandler is venture capitalist Bill Gurney. Though the first season ended with seven episodes this month, a new season is expected to look into the rise of Facebook through the eyes of Mark Zuckerberg, but honestly, you might be better looking at our number 6 for that rollercoaster.
4 / 9
The story of WeWork has been combed over time and time again in both books and documentaries, but on March 18 AppleTV+ brought us its own rendition with WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork. It’s also got big name actors behind it, including Jared Leto as co-founder Adam Neumann and Anne Hathaway as Adam’s wife Rebekah Neumann.
The show’s based on a Wondery podcast of the same name, and follows the power couple through their origin story with their communal working space startup through their spike in investments before everything came crashing down.
There has also been a Hulu documentary WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, which is similarly light on details and gets caught up in the relationships of the main players involved, though it does offer a more down-to-earth (if that’s even possible when talking about tech startups) look at what caused the WeWork bubble before it eventually popped.
5 / 9
The miniseries that premiered on Netflix February 11 was based on the story of Anna Sorokin, a conwoman who tricked New York City’s richest to let her into their closed circles by pretending she was a German heiress. The series drew heavily on reporting by New York Magazine journalist Jessica Pressler and other stories about her escapades and eventual arrest in 2017. During that time, she scammed $275,000 from banks, hotels, and her fellow rich.
The series stars Anna Chlumsky as fictional journalist Vivian Kent and Julia Garner as Sorokin, alongside a rather solid cast, but the show has been abused by critics for what they called an inconsistent tone. It also tries to add more drama to sit alongside the whole conning the uber wealthy out of their money, so it also gets rather bogged down.
But it does offer a glimpse into how assumed privilege can easily become real privilege once you’re allowed a breach into presumed social circles, something neo-riche tech billionaires can probably understand.
6 / 9
Now we’re getting into documentary territory, but The Tinder Swindler is particularly flashy, and it’s likely to become its own docudrama soon enough. The Netflix documentary that premiered in February this year has became one of the streaming platform’s most watched documentaries. Part true crime, part drama, the story centers around Israeli-born conman Simon Leviev (Originally Simon Hayut) who emotionally manipulated people he met on Tinder into financially supporting him.
As much as this is a documentary, it makes heavy use of reenacted scenes and dark, moody lighting to set up its harsh yet sexy yet melodramatic atmosphere. It’s interesting to note that the Hayut was only fully banned from Tinder and many other dating platforms until after the documentary came out.
And now there’s likely to be a docudrama movie coming out about events depicted in the documentary, according to Variety. So if we’re not over the whole scene by then, that may be something to look forward to.
7 / 9
There are several movies based on the old tech landscape that are easy to stream. Some are better than others, so I’m including a few of the better ones.
The Aaron Sorkin-written, Danny Boyle-directed production was originally adapted from the 2011 biography of the same name, written by Walter Isaacson. It’s got big names as cast including Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, and Seth Rogan, to name a few, and it’s got enough Sorkin-esque dialogue to fill up a several-page spreadsheet with quippy banter.
Michael Fassbender might not look much like Jobs, but he still does a good job of replicating the Apple founder’s mannerisms and style of speech. Though it centers around three of Apple’s big product launches, ending around 1998, it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of Apple’s bigger scandals.
Character studies of the since-passed tech monolith that was Steve Jobs can only do so much to really identify what has been the outcome of Jobs’ often weird, often abusive habits with both his designers and employees. Still, it adds a layer of complexity to a story that most only understand from the Apple founder’s famous keynotes and minimalist commercials.
8 / 9
In 2010, two monoliths of film came together to make something that still resonates to this day. You have Aaron Sorkin dialogue sitting alongside the directorial talent of David Fincher. It depicts the loneliness and rather pathetic heart of what has become the globally domineering social media boom, and it’s still relevant even 12 years later.
The movie might be even more profound due to how its cast includes actors that often make me want to throw a remote through the screen, yet it all works. Jesse Eisenburg is pitch perfect as the self-defeating, personally inept Mark Zuckerberg, while Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake seem form fitted as Zuckerberg’s friend Eduardo Saverin and Napster founder Sean Parker, respectively.
What makes this movie special, beyond a solid script and pacing, is how it doesn’t focus on the metrics of Facebook’s rise but instead focuses on the heart of obsession with how others think about people as the main driving force behind Facebook’s rise.
9 / 9