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CRIPPLED UNICORNS

Hollywood’s best new genre is the scandalous startup founder takedown

A scene from "WeCrashed"
Apple TV+
A scene from “WeCrashed”
Published Last updated

The next two months on streaming and cable television will be led by series that will dissect three of the biggest business unicorns of the last decade. 

On Apple TV+ the story of WeWork’s rise and collapse will be told in WeCrashed with Jared Leto as Adam Neumann, the company’s co-founder and former CEO, and Anne Hathaway as his wife Rebekah Neumann. On Hulu, the rise of former Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes will be spun with Amanda Seyfried in the title role in a series called The Dropout.

Finally, on Showtime, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the team behind the hit series Billions, will tackle the tale of Uber’s co-founder and former CEO, Travis Kalanick, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in Super Pumped.

In the case of Super Pumped, the Uber saga will be just the first installment in an anthology of business tales, all scripted with the dense, hyper-witty dialogue and pop culture references viewers have become accustomed to hearing flow from the mouths of Wall Street titans on Billions. So far, there’s no word on which company might be the focus of season two, but the field is ripe with rollercoaster stories from the likes of Zappos and its late founder Tony Hsieh, and Airbnb and its founder Brian Chesky.  

The rise and fall of startup moguls, one book and podcast at a time 

In the case of the shows coming out in the next few months, each series is based on existing postmortems of the companies in question. Super Pumped shares the same name of the book by New York Times journalist Mike Isaac. Similarly, WeCrashed and The Dropout, are drawn from the eponymously named investigative podcast series from Wondery and ABC News, respectively. 

The emergence of the fascination with controversial startup founders might date to decade-old The Social Network, which skewered Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, and won three Oscars in the process. The difference here is that while all of the aforementioned companies have captured the business spotlight, none of them are part of the FAANG club of dominant Big Tech brands. Instead, each company is or was engaged in attempting to completely disrupt an existing industry.

Executive accountability in business is the new rock star in Hollywood

“Contrary to what you might have read, I am not a monster,” says Gordon-Levitt in his Kalanick persona in the series’ trailer. Scenes like that promise to deliver more drama and mainstream-accessible parables than the inside details and investigations that captivated the business community. 

And, unlike the satirical ride of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which did a good job of exposing the ridiculous side of startup mania, these new series aim to frame the life-changing and sometimes dangerous euphoria of hyper-growth companies. The theme seems to focus on the notion that operating outside of the rules can yield impressive innovation, but there are human costs when startup founders become convinced that their venture capital-powered vision is the only truth that matters. 

In the teaser for WeCrashed, when told by a colleague “You know, you’re not God,” Leto, as Neumann, whispers back, “You have to admit… I do look a little bit like him.”

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