The 21st century redefined cult following – and catapulted Silicon Valley entrepreneurs into A-list celebrities. From Facebook to Theranos, the Bay Area has proven to be just as elusive as the Wild West. The highly-anticipated Hulu documentary “WeWork: Or the Story of Making and Breaking a $47 Million Unicorn” premieres April 2nd, and is set to introduce audiences to a new type of charismatic crook.
Most modern cities have at least some semblance of a shared workspace, whether it be a favorite informal local coffee shop or a kombucha beer-serving sleek office building that hosts rooftop ragers. Which would you rather “work” at? While that question may seem daunting – or even irrelevant – during the COVID-19 pandemic, WeWork founder Adam Neumann’s obsession with adding flair to the mundane 9-to-5 led his company to be valued at close to $50 billion. So what’s the catch?
In a case study of millennial greed and inflated venture capital bets, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn captures the rise and fall of Neumann’s “hippie-messianic” glory. The film is the latest documentary from Academy Award-nominated director Jed Rothstein, who approaches his subjects with the ear of an investigative journalist and an eye for the ironic. Rothstein’s 2018 film, The China Hustle, was dubbed by Forbes as “the most important film of 2018,” and WeWork debuted at SXSW in 2021 to critical acclaim.
Below, Rothstein reveals what led him to make WeWork, and how he challenges the idea of false idols in a tech-driven world.
The Knockturnal: How did you first become connected with this project?
Jed Rothstein: I’ve always been interested in financial mysteries and in great New York stories, which, even though I live here, I don’t often get to do. When I saw that [producer] Ross Dinerstein and Campfire were working on a WeWork project shortly after the company’s IPO collapse, I connected with them, and the rest is history.
The Knockturnal: How does this film differ from your past documentaries, namely The China Hustle? Did you approach the subject in a new way?
Jed Rothstein: The main characters in The China Hustle were financial detectives, uncovering a massive fraud. In WeWork, the main characters are the people who built the thing – The We Company – that turned out to be something other than what they thought it was. The China Hustle was told from the outside in, whereas this story was told from the inside out. Also, though there is a massive flameout at the end. I think the ride of the WeWork story is more fun. It’s about something that could have been great; that they almost pulled off. Most of the China Hustle companies were just manufacturing or extraction companies – not a lot of fun and no free beer in the breakroom.
The Knocturnal: In a SXSW with Deadline, you compare WeWork to the tulip bubble in the 1600s, which was also referenced in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel. Like tulips, WeWork gave immense meaning – and money – to something oft-overlooked: a standard coworking space. Between cult-like figures like Adam Neumann, Elizabeth Holmes, and even President Trump, why do you think certain icons arise for the public, whether it be in the tech world or government?
Jed Rothstein: This is a great question. Why do we want to worship idols and imbue them with symbolic powers that clearly exceed what any one person would be capable of? Are we hard-wired to look for salvific figures, or even to create them? Perhaps we create heroes to reflect our own aspirations and give ourselves faith that someone, somewhere knows what’s going on when things get tough. Obviously, the three people you mentioned above did not have the answers.
The Knockturnal: Critics of WeWork have argued that venture capitalists are in part to blame for financially supporting Adam Neumann’s controversial vision. To whom would you ascribe “blame” for the rise and fall of the multi-billion dollar unicorn?
Jed Rothstein: Certainly, the venture capital world puts pressure on people like Adam to go big, and showers them with money they may not be qualified to spend correctly. I think the venture capital firms do deserve some of the blame. Of course, the game is not fair – they seldom suffer. The bigger question is: Does our capitalist system have to be built how it is?
The Knockturnal: How would you describe WeWork’s unicorn arc to potential viewers?
WeWork is a fable from the era that just ended. A magical, charismatic tech guru started a company that was going to disrupt one of the oldest businesses in the world: office rental. He charmed the smartest guys in every room from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to Tokyo, and grew the company from one office in New York into a globe-spanning behemoth. WeWork spent lavishly on private jets and big parties for their largely millennial workforce, who believed that they were going to change the world, or at least enjoy a lot of free beer while trying. But in the end, when the founder tried to take the company public, the numbers didn’t add up, and in the cold light of morning, no one was buying.
Like Icarus, the company collapsed, falling from $47 billion to bailout territory in a matter of weeks. The workers were dazed, devastated and, in many cases, laid off. As for the magical charismatic guru? He made out just fine, walking away with hundreds of millions of dollars and time to plan his next adventure.
The Knockturnal: You’re very vocal about your political views on Twitter. Can we expect you to turn your documentary focus on Trump’s divisive presidency?
Jed Rothstein: I did a series with Alex Gibney and Tim Weiner a couple years back called Enemies, about the FBI holding presidents accountable and making sure that no one is above the law. In the wake of that, it was pretty shocking to witness the events of the last several months, especially including the two impeachment acquittals. I think it’s important for documentarians and others to keep shining a light on abuses of power at the highest levels, but I don’t have any current projects focused on the former occupant of the White House.
The Knockturnal: What’s next for you, as both a director and a producer?
Jed Rothstein: A return to travel, I hope! Beyond that, I am working – remotely for now – on a project-based out of London that involves a lot of international intrigue and I have a couple other stories in the pipeline back here. I am always grateful for the chance to keep telling interesting stories!
“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” is available to stream on Hulu on April 2nd.