So where's the dot-com movie?

Badly dressed geeks clutching stock options are a tough sell, but Hollywood's still a day late and an IPO short.


Katharine Mieszkowski
June 13, 2000 11:04PM (UTC)

INTERIOR: STUDIO EXECUTIVE'S OFFICE

Camera pans the sun-filled office of a Hollywood player. We see the studio executive taking a meeting with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who has just finished pitching his movie idea.

MR. BIG-STUFF STUDIO EXECUTIVE
(excitedly)
That was a great story. I think we'd like to take an option on it.

Advertisement:

INTERNET GAZILLIONAIRE
(suddenly nervous)
I think it's really a little early to be issuing options in a company that we'd be forming around the movie, because I wouldn't know how to value it.

MR. BIG-STUFF STUDIO EXECUTIVE
(magnanimously)
We'll take the risk on it. That's the whole point of this. We'll take the option without knowing whether or not it's worth anything.

INTERNET GAZILLIONAIRE
(more consternation)
Wait a minute. I still don't know how I can form a business entity around this thing. And we need to do that before we can possibly issue options.

The two men look at each other in dismay and confusion.

DISSOLVE TO:

EXTERIOR: SAN FRANCISCO LOFT START-UP

This isn't a scene from a cringe-inducing Hollywood-meets-Silicon Valley drama. It's what really happened when Steve Perlman, the entrepreneur best known as the co-founder of WebTV, pitched his Silicon Valley movie concept to a Hollywood studio exec. Of course, optioning an idea for a movie is different from issuing options in a start-up company. After five minutes of going around in circles, they figured out that one was talking about "an option" and the other was talking about "options." Hollywood and Silicon Valley -- they just don't speak the same language.

Advertisement:

These days, though, both the dot-communists and the film- and TV-makers are straining to learn each other's vernacular. Because just as the avalanche of hype about dot-com riches is mercifully subsiding, Hollywood is warming up to the idea of telling a story that captures the industry's glory days. Think -- "Start-up, The Movie": You'll laugh, You'll cry! Your options will be worthless!

There are, apparently, no less than three movies with the title "IPO" in the works. Practically every narrative about tech entrepreneurship or Net culture -- from Michael Lewis' "The New New Thing" to Jerry Kaplan's "Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure" to Jon Katz's "Geeks" -- has been optioned either for TV or the big screen. ABC is backing a "reality-based" TV show about an online magazine starring real journalists. And Jason McCabe Calcanis, editor in chief of the Silicon Alley Reporter, will play a dot-com CEO in an upcoming Artisan film, which he helped script-doctor.

There are piles of dot-com projects in the works, but the Net -- despite the forgettable Sandra Bullock flick of the same name -- is still waiting for its breakout blockbuster or hit series.

"In the last couple of years there have been several pilots developed or shot that deal with Internet start-ups," says Robert Fried, a former Hollywood executive and Academy Award winning producer turned dot-com CEO, as the founder of WhatsHotNow.com. "None actually worked," he admits. But stay tuned. "They're zooming in on it. It will work. It may take a few attempts before the correct voice is located, someone who understands the TV medium and someone who understands this kooky environment."

Advertisement:

You'd think it would be easy to put together a dot-com drama; the public has been endlessly fascinated by the code-to-riches story of Silicon Valley, the ego-driven business battles of folks like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison, Palo Alto's abundance of wealthy bachelors, the instant celebrity of a Mahir. Even factoring in the natural lag time between some captivating event in the "real world" of the Net and the making of a cinematic version of it (with sexier CEOs and airy offices), it's downright odd that we have yet to see a dot-com film or sitcom.

So, where is the "Wall Street" or "Falcon Crest" of Silicon Valley?

By all accounts there is one real stumbling block keeping Hollywood from loading up the screens with dot-com flicks -- the, er, visual limitations; there's nothing more boring than watching other people type.

Advertisement:

Joey Plager, vice president of program enterprises and distribution for Showtime Networks, says: "You want to see people interacting with other people, not people interacting with machines. That's what makes for good comedy and drama."

Martyn Burke, the director of "The Pirates of Silicon Valley," a made-for-TV dramatization of the legendary rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, argues that even when the subject is human drama, the visual cues of high-tech culture -- computers, cubicles, messages on a monitor -- can really deaden a film. "The biggest challenge I had when I was directing 'Pirates' was to somehow make interesting people staring into computer screens. It's not exactly compelling filmmaking."

You would think that a "Silicon Valley story" would mean hushed office romances, relationships gone sour after one too many engineering all-nighters and the heartbreak of finding that your competitors got more funding than you -- not a bunch of people sitting at computers. Surely the popularity of shows like "ER" and "L.A. Law" has more to do with the relationships between the characters -- their affairs and rivalries -- than with the setting of an emergency room or courtroom. The same should be true of a Silicon soap; only trouble is, aside from the occasional foosball game or golf-course deal, the most authentic setting is a nondescript but messy cube. Hardly an audience winner.

Advertisement:

"Maybe you start them off in the cubicle but then you've got to get them out into a context that's visually appealing where there's some visual action or drama or comedy going on," suggests Plager. "To get people to see movies on a big screen, you need beautiful scenery, action, adventure. They want to be taken places that they otherwise can't be taken."

Could anyone really argue that that place is the office park-ville of Silicon Valley? If you spend your workweek sitting in front of a monitor in an office, do you really want to go to see a movie set there on the weekend?

Still, Hollywood is eager to see what can be made out of the Net business and culture story that's come to dominate every other medium over the last few years. When Burke's "Pirates of Silicon Valley" movie aired last summer, he says, "every network in town approached me: 'Why don't you come do something for us on the Internet and computers?' There's a tremendous fervor to try to get something going," he says.

Po Bronson is feeling it. A prolific chronicler of the tech scene for Wired magazine and the New York Times, Bronson hasn't written a magazine article in a year; he is now consumed by Hollywood projects and says his phone rings three times a week with producer types looking for help. Bronson has just finished adapting a chapter of his nonfiction "The Nudist on the Late Shift" into a full-length feature script called "IPO," for John Malkovich's production company, Mr. Mudd. Meanwhile, his novel "The First 20 Million is Always the Hardest" has been adapted for a full-length feature called "Iron Men" by Jon Favreau, the writer and star of "Swingers."

Advertisement:

Meanwhile, Bronson's learning the showbiz ropes. He co-wrote a pilot for a TV series called "South of Market," set in a San Francisco Internet incubator. ABC paid for the pilot, but "the next week 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' came on the air," says Bronson, "and they don't need new dramas." Nevermind, Bronson's just started a made-for-TV techie movie for Fox.

Bronson is counting on his insider's view to help him beat out two other film projects both with the name "IPO," which he says are being written and researched in Silicon Valley. But the most difficult problem from his perspective won't be outrunning the competition, but telling a story that's true to the valley without giving in to the Hollywood formula that money equals moral corruption.

"From Hollywood's point of view the story they wanted to tell is that it's a morally corrupt system to want to go public. They wanted to see our guy or woman quit the business and say, 'Enough greed for me' -- leave it all behind and go move to Maine."

But as every Valleyite knows, the "right" thing to do in the moral universe of Silicon Valley is to get up and do it again, whether you make $100 million on the first try or utterly fail. Unless you're already drinking the valley Kool-Aid, it's not hard to see why this mentality might be hard for audiences to grasp.

Advertisement:

There are also inherent challenges to making audiences care about people who will possibly get really, really rich. "The public's reaction to an IPO is jealousy and scorn," says Bronson. "How do we like that person rather than hate that person because we're going to feel jealous?"

One way around that is to do a Net show that focuses on the regular life of a webhead, not a company going public. Bunim/Murray Productions, the people who brought us MTV's "The Real World," is casting real, live journalists for ABC's new "reality" show chronicling the launch of a Web magazine. With 2-for-1 thrift, ABC will get a reality-based TV show and a Web magazine; viewers will get to watch online hacks in action. (Look at those gonzos type!) No matter how tight the deadlines, it's hard to imagine that a crew of reporters sticking close to their Net connections will have the same draw as "Survivor."

So, what will it take to get audiences interested in a dot-com drama? If anything can do it maybe it'll be a Net love story involving a stripper. At film festivals this fall, look for "Center of the World," in which the Silicon Alley Reporter's Calcanis makes his acting debut playing an Internet CEO. Peter Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry") is taking on the fresh dramatic role of chief technology officer in the Artisan film, directed by Wayne Wang ("Smoke").

The elevator pitch: "Sarsgaard falls in love with an erotic dancer, and goes to Vegas while we're doing our IPO. So, you have this Internet backdrop, this tension of an IPO going on, and the CTO is checking out and going and hanging out with a stripper," Calcanis says. "It's their screwed-up love story that is the story; the Internet is backdrop."

Advertisement:

Calcanis thinks making a movie about the Internet is as ridiculous as making a movie about the telephone. "The Internet as a movie does not work well; neither does technology or hacking," he argues, although he thinks the people who've built the Net industry make fascinating subjects -- at least in part.

"The valley-type people are frankly not great for movies," Calcanis says. "They don't dress well in general and they don't have the same sort of style that the New York or L.A. scene has. The most interesting thing about people in the valley is how much money they have, and on the big screen or TV that stuff doesn't translate."

"I don't think that we'll ever see a prime-time series about Silicon Valley people and I don't think that we'll see a movie about them either," Calcanis continues. "If we do, it will probably be really bad and not interesting to watch." Calcanis' prediction is hardly surprising, given his role as Silicon Alley booster. But the criticism certainly rings true for others trying to make a high-tech hit. Just ask Fortune writer Brent Schlender, whose idea for a one-hour drama based on Silicon Valley is maxing out its shelf life after three on-again off-again Hollywood years.

"A 'Dallas'-type show set in Silicon Valley, an over-the-top, somewhat satirical soap opera, with tongue firmly planted in cheek," is how Schlender describes his concept, which attracted the big names of writer Garry Trudeau and director Robert Altman.

Advertisement:

"It's the interpersonal relationships, covet[ous]ness and envy, the instant wealth -- all the seven deadly sins that go with rapid success and competition," he says. "There's not a Bill Gates character, per se, but there are some of his characteristics, and Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison."

But after Fox paid for a one-hour pilot to be shot in Vancouver last year, network execs "weren't crazy enough about it to order episodes," says Schlender. They wanted it to be "soapier." "There wasn't enough sex, the age of the cast was on the high side, and a little too smart for the audience." Plus, by the time the pilot was shot the media fascination with the industry had changed, from old-school moguls to the dot-com upstarts.

Another pilot will be shot in July for Fox, this time with a new director and set in New York. And so much has changed since Schlender hatched the idea back in August 1997, expect some major script modifications -- dot-com anyone? And, of course, there are still no guarantees the show will make it to the small screen; the drama is a backup alternate for Fox's fall lineup.

"It's shocking to me that there's not a dot-com sitcom or drama this season," says Jon Rosenfeld, co-writer of "Sit.com," a pilot for a half-hour comedy based on a Web site design company in San Francisco called Webslingers. "This is clearly the subject on everyone's mind."

Advertisement:

Apparently so. Even as the pilot, which is backed by actor Noah Wyle's production company Wyle-Katz, was being shopped around L.A., the Industry Standard ran a parody of a show called "Sit-Dot-Com," also set in a San Francisco Web design shop. The actual show includes such characters as a hyperactive programmer and a freaky, burned-out, government-conspiracy-theory hacker who claims to have invented Pac Man.

"The Internet has been the next big thing for the last few years, but it caught people so by surprise in the creative community that nobody has quite figured out the way to tell a story about it," agrees Burke, the "Pirates" director. "It's like this gold rush that everybody is mining like crazy, but nobody has come up with a nugget yet in Hollywood."

And the longer the clock ticks the less likely it seems we'll get a really compelling dot-com movie. Hollywood could have had all the color it wanted in 1996 or 1997 when Excite (not yet merged with @Home and acquired by AT&T) recruited worker bees with its childlike atmosphere and bright red slide between office floors; when Yahoo co-founder David Filo worked all night and slept under his desk; when there were as many dogs as editors at Wired magazine; and when start-up legends were born over games of ultimate Frisbee; in short, when the Net industry was young and giddy and not yet bloated with V.C. funding and responsible to shareholders. But if you made a movie today with office dogs and slides, the clichis would just hurt.

"Hollywood time is the opposite of Internet time," says Steve Perlman, the entrepreneur who sold WebTV to Microsoft for an estimated $425 million and now wants to write movies. He knew better than to put his fate in the hands of any option-buying studio; to get around Hollywood lag time he's hired his own screenwriters and toured them around start-ups to speed up the process of turning his secret "melodrama that takes place in Silicon Valley" into a script.

Still, Perlman has no illusions that his ability to capture the authenticity of the moment will sell his story. Instead he's betting on a universal human drama. "It happens to take place in Silicon Valley, but it's a drama that could be written about some other time in history where something extraordinary is happening, during the Civil War or the gold rush. The story is a kind of a timeless story about people." Spoken like a true Hollywood player.

Say Perlman really scores -- say he creates a script that can entertain a mainstream audience, but not be flamed with the ridicule of start-up veterans. Even then it's unlikely that he'll enjoy the success he's experienced in the tech world, say skeptical Hollywood execs.

A dot-com drama won't fly for the same reason that audiences don't go for most white-collar crime movies, says Showtime exec Plager. "American audiences want explosions on every page. Bang! Bang! Shoot'em up! That's compelling. It's not a guy sitting at a keyboard and swindling someone else out of money or losing money because an IPO that's floated is not well-received. I mean -- who cares? That does not make for good visual drama."

No wonder we haven't seen Hollywood do Silicon Valley. There just aren't enough weapons in those cubes!


Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •