years we’ve been hearing about inflated numbers on the NASDAQ,
and venture capitalists who throw astounding amounts of money
at young people with nothing more than promising ideas. Startup.com
tells the inside story of one such adventure.
A pair of high school classmates,
ten years out, propose to start an Internet company that will
help citizens deal with local governments. They call it "govWorks."
It will enable people to go online to register their motor vehicles,
pay parking tickets, and do all the other nasty little things
municipal and regional governments require of them. As one of
the young entrepreneurs explains, the vertical market is $585
billion, and parking tickets in New York City alone generate
Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman
are the "couple" of this movie: business partners
who go through all the stürm und drang of a married couple during
the life of their company. When we first see Kaleil, he is walking
out on his job at Goldman Sachs to serve as CEO of govWorks.
In contrast, Tom is introduced laboring on the hair of a little
African-American girl. We’re tempted to think he’s merely a
hairdresser, but it turns out she’s his daughter. (We never
meet the mother, presumably either divorced or never married.)
Tom will head the technology side of the operation.
In May 1999, govWorks is launched
with 8 employees. The cameras follow Kaleil and Tom through
the process of raising money. We see few real pitches (the big
money guys apparently are camera-shy), but we see their logos
and reception desks, and hear our heroes’ assessment of the
meetings afterward. In one tense sequence, they spend most of
a workday trying to locate their distant attorney by phone while
a $10 million offer lies on the table. The film races through
the trips to the offices of other potential investors with The
Babys' version of "Money (That’s What I Want)" bellowing
hilariously on the soundtrack. It’s a mild surprise when a company
that sent them off earlier with harsh, condescending comments
ends up investing in govWorks later.
By August, govWorks has 30 employees.
There are 70 in October, and 120 by January 2000. Things start
to heat up: articles on govWorks appear in Forbes, the
New York Times, Smart Money, Alley Cat News,
and Kaleil’s face turns up on the cover of Dinero. A
hostess at a glitzy function introduces someone as "former
president of New York Telephone, and is now running the world."
Kaleil is interviewed on the Fox Network’s "Digital Jam"
show, then airs on CSPAN2 during a White House conference on
the "Impact of Economy on Citizens and Government."
President Clinton introduces him and guffaws loudly and long
at one of Kaleil’s cracks. Later, our hero hands the President
a business card and cheekily suggests he consider taking a job
with govWorks "if Hillary wins."
A fictional screenplay couldn’t
have improved on what real life handed the filmmakers. Partners
get cold feet and have to be bought out. Top people get squeezed
out and start rattling their lawyers. Security people are warned
not to let former coworkers in "no matter what they say."
There’s a break-in that looks like industrial sabotage, and
officers in "NYPD Evidence Collection Team" jackets
show up. The head of the competition visits the govWorks offices,
by invitation ("The Enemy," a title drily announces),
and gets shown around while staffers joke nervously about secrets
and bugs … then they see him launch his Web site (ezgov.com)
one month later.
Twice, we get the cliché
of the clingy girlfriend: one talks directly to the camera about
her dissatisfaction (just a phone call would "keep me going
for three weeks," she bleats), another is shown pleading
gently with Kaleil for more of his time. (Wonder how she felt
when she saw him in the movie good-naturedly muttering "she’s
bad" after she leaves the room?)
is dry, the cameras unobtrusive. Producer Pennebaker is well
known for his 1967 Dylan film, Don’t Look Back, as well
as Monterey Pop, Jimi Plays Monterey, and The
War Room. Co-director Hegedus collaborated with Pennebaker
on the last two; this is a first feature for co-director, editor,
and cinematographer Noujaim.
Mostly, they just watch people
interact, whether it’s a sales meeting, a New Hampshire retreat,
or Kaleil cuddling with a girl on his bed while talking to a
disgruntled staffer by speakerphone. There’s rarely anything
more scary than the sight of executives jabbering on a cell
phone (and even reading!) while driving, or anything more arty
than a dawn shot of a thin band of orange sky over the cold
blue skyline of San Francisco and the Transamerica pyramid slicing
up the center of the screen.
Yet the tale is compelling—not
as a business tale, but a human one. The two partners go through
all the pain of a divorce and shaky reconciliation in the ashes
of their dream … then move on. The final historical note of
the film is dated New Year’s Day 2001, so Pennebaker and company
whipped this baby into shape in amazing time.
Loftus does not venture capital. He has too little to venture.
Instead, his fail-safe business plan centers on making it into
the hot seat on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire." David
Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com
Jehane Noujaim, Chris Hegedus—Directors
Frazer Pennebaker, Jehane Noujaim, Chris Hegedus—Executive Producers
Chris Hegedus, Erez Laufer, Jehane Noujaim—Editors
Rebecca Marshall, Ed Rogoff—Associate Producers
2001, 103 minutes
Feature Documentary (tied with "Children Underground"),
2001 Best Documentary Jury Award (tied with "My Generation"),
Festival of World Cinema
2001 Best Documentary, Southeastern Film Critics Association
2002 Best Documentary, Florida Film Critics Circle
2002 Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary, Directors
Guild of America
2002 Best Documentary, Kansas City Film Critics Circle
2002 Best Documentary Sierra Award, Las Vegas Film Critics Society
2002 Best Documentary, Online Film Critics Society
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