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Startup.com

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Cover Image Not Available 
Starring: Kaleil Tuzman, Tom Herman
Director: Chris Hegedus
Rated: R
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: May 2001
Genre: Documentary





Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

The Internet bubble has burst. So say the headlines. But let's not misinterpret. Some companies like Petco, Kozmo, and to some extent Priceline have gone belly-up because they were undercapitalized, were plagued with consumer complaints, or simply did not market their product effectively to the appropriate targeted consumers. The Internet itself, however, is in great shape with people throughout the world signing on in exponential numbers. Most film studios, large and small, have an Internet presence, advertising their offerings on their web sites. The online critics enjoy a substantial audience for their reviews, interviews and film commentaries, with movie buffs going to those sites exclusively because of their interest in film (whereas only a small percentage of people who buy, say, the New York Times, are going to look at the paper's movie reviews).

In fact, the startlingly effective non-fiction film "Startup.com," which received good publicity in the New York Times business section on April 28, strengthens the concept that though some companies seeking direct business through the web have been unsuccessful, that notion does not in any way, shape or form impinge on the World Wide Web's humongous following.

"Startup.com" is really two almost distinct stories and, in fact, the lesser of the pair deals with the aforementioned Internet as a notion separate from businesses with a physical presence. One yarn deals with how a business is created from the ground up, goes through a blaze of hiring nationwide amid the most optimistic hopes for making millions, and then tumbles, a victim more of the general decline of the stock market whose bubble burst some time during the year 2000. The other story, the one which more strongly captured the imagination of the two filmmakers, is the narrative of a friendship between two people who were pals since childhood, who worked together to form what they hoped would be a novel sort of enterprise, but whose long hours took such a toll on their young bodies that a power struggle led one to fire the other. While either of the two plots could make for effective documentary drama, the conflict between the now 29-year-old Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and the 30-year-old Tom Herman is what separates this story from the dull, talking heads documentary and gives the picture the tone of a well-honed piece of fiction.

Mr. Tuzman, who is the dominant force in the 103-minute film, is a charismatic Harvard graduate who voluntarily quit a lucrative job at Goldman Sachs to partner up with the most ambitious 20-something style of the decade: the ground- up formation of a dot-com business. He teams up with the more intellectual-looking childhood buddy, Tom Herman, to write a proposal for a Web-based business that at first would simply make the paying of parking tickets easier. Just go to the appropriate URL, punch in your credit card number, click "pay" and poof: your money goes through the hands of executives of the so-called Govworks.com and into the municipal treasury. The operation would not be restricted to New York but would be set up throughout principal cities of the U.S. Soon enough, Tom and Kaleil expanded their notion into a grandiose design. The public would deal with faceless municipal governments in every respect, including the paying of taxes and other fees via the new business. Billions of dollars would change hands each year and the young entrepreneurs would join the army of 20-something dotcom millionaires.

Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (a roommate of Kaleil) teamed up with Chris Hegedus and with production funds raised by D.A. Pennebaker, they shot a slew of digital video with handheld cameras, following Kaleil and Tom in some cases 18 hours a day. In one scene, Kaleil is filmed being awakened after two hours' sleep, a major segment because the very exhaustion of starting such a business--like starting and operating any successful operation--is not a 9 to 5 job. The two young men are captured driving around Silicon Valley near San Francisco and heading around Boston, meeting and trying to persuade investment bankers to fund their operation. They start by getting small checks from friends and family and move on to building up a kitty by talking to the suits in the major houses. Kaleil is the more persuasive partner, a fact which must deep-down have irritated his good friend Tom and led to their ultimate, melodramatic breakup in which Tom is escorted from his desk at the orders of CEO Kaleil. At one point the business is looked upon by the public as so unusual that Kaleil is invited to a session of CSPAN on TV and chats one on one with President Clinton--all of which is captured by the two directors.

While I recognize the accomplishment of the filmmakers in documenting the rise and fall of the Govworks.com, as an Internet film critic I went into this movie hoping that I'd learn quite a bit about the specifics of website organizations. What we get, however, from the business angle is a mostly generic account of the growth of an ambitious company but a company that for all practical purposes could be any sort of organization. Eliminate the dotcom from Govworks and we could be watching the way an oil company gets started or, for that matter, a supermarket chain or a pharmaceutical works. There is little question that Hegedus and Noujaim, looking perhaps from the women's angle, were far more involved in tracing the crumbling of an intense friendship, that between Tom and Kaleil, who became more interested in money than in the continued nurturing of their camaraderie.

"Startup.com" may chronicle the rise and fall of an Internet startup business and the breakup (at least temporarily) of its founders, but its greatest strength is in its production. Hegedus and Noujaim were able to con their way into board rooms of major investment houses, ultimately to take four hundred hours of film--which they then edited down drastically to 103 minutes to evoke the most challenging scenes. If we are to believe Kaleil's later assessment (and there is no reason to doubt him), he was broken up emotionally while watching what he did to Tom and what Kaleil did to turn off two of his women friends--who were candidly photographed as though they were so accustomed to the intruding cameras that they no longer knew the cameras were there.

Though a nonfiction piece, "Startup.com" has the energy shown by the spirited "Boiler Room," starring Giovanni Ribisi, which opened over a year ago. None of 200-plus people employed during the height of the business looks over the age of 35 and all participate in the regular cheering sessions usually led by Kaleil. Because we become involved in the lives of Kaleil and Tom, we feel sad about the breakup, but Hegedus and Noujaim give the story a happy, Hollywood ending, which will be disclosed to you when you take in this evocative film after its May 11 opening.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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