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Hollywood is obsessed with ‘cult-like’ business leaders. WeWork is no exception

Photo illustration of Adam Neumann against a text background with the chant "we-work! we-work!"
A new Hulu documentary shows how WeWork, cofounded by Adam Neumann, created an unusually fervent workplace culture.
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Visual China Group via Getty Images)

This is the April 6, 2021, edition of The Wide Shot, a weekly newsletter about everything happening in the business of entertainment. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

One of the early sounds of Hulu’s new documentary on the rise and fall of WeWork is the offscreen voice of NYU business professor Scott Galloway, saying of cofounder Adam Neumann, “If you tell a 30-something male he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you.”

“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” which debuted on Walt Disney Co.-owned Hulu Friday, shows how the co-working startup created an unusually fervent workplace culture, with employee chants of “We-Work! We-Work!” and a CEO who spoke in evangelistic terms about his mission.

Even the prospectus for the company’s ill-fated IPO contained messianic phrases: “Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness.” At one point, Don Lewis, a former WeWork lawyer, describes an usher at a company event asking him, “Is this some kind of cult?”

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Jed Rothstein, who directed “WeWork,” was intrigued by Neumann’s vision of a “hyper-capitalist kibbutz,” he said in a recent video interview. “And I was of course interested in exploring the reasons that he failed and how the hubris and greed eventually overtook the desire to create a community.”

But was Neumann, a charismatic Israeli immigrant with flowing locks, basically operating a cult with venture backing? Rothstein won’t go nearly that far but says Neumann’s WeWork definitely had “cult-like” qualities.

“People weren’t forced to carve Adam’s initials into their pelvises or anything like that,” Rothstein said from his Brooklyn office, drawing a clear distinction from actual cult leaders like Keith Raniere of NXIVM. “But I think there were cult-like aspects to it.”

Rothstein’s film, his follow-up to 2018’s “The China Hustle,” is the latest entry in what I’m calling the capitalist-cult movie continuum. These are movies documenting the dramatic ups and downs of business phenomena driven by compelling figures who use their charms to lead investors and employees to irrational behavior and groupthink.

The genre goes at least as far back as Alex Gibney’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” from 2005, and also includes his 2019 HBO effort “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” about failed blood-testing firm Theranos and its leader, Elizabeth Holmes, who was indicted for wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She pleaded not guilty. The dueling Fyre Festival docs from Netflix and Hulu from a couple of years ago also fit the genre.

“The excesses of culture and business are endlessly fascinating and, there’s been a huge trend as of late in holding corporations accountable with documentaries like ‘WeWork’ and ‘Fyre Fraud,’” said Belisa Balaban, Hulu’s original documentaries vice president. “We know our audiences are riveted by the inner workings of the outlandish people and culture behind the rise and fall of some of these larger-than-life stories, and that makes them especially compelling for us to champion.”

While I couldn’t find data specifically on the proliferation of such documentaries, it seems clear a broader appetite for docs is growing on streaming services. Parrot Analytics data recently published by Axios shows the number of documentary series grew 63% from January 2019 to March 2021. Meanwhile, demand for documentary programming — measured using search interest, social media, YouTube streams and other data — grew 142%.

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And it looks like studios are happy to satisfy that hunger. For example, Discovery+ is set to run a doc on the WallStreetBets-GameStop stock saga, narrated by none other than “Wolf of Wall Street” convict Jordan Belfort. A subgenre of documentaries about dark internet trends, exemplified by HBO’s “Q: Into the Storm” and “Fake Famous,” as well as Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma,” also has been on the rise. Closer to the true-crime side, HBO’s “McMillions” tells the story of a former cop who defrauded McDonald’s of $24 million.

Streaming services love documentaries and docuseries in part because they’re relatively cheap to make, they get strong viewership and they can tap into of-the-moment cultural obsessions.

With “WeWork,” Rothstein chronicles the story of Neumann, who did not participate in the film, until his exit from the company after it canceled its IPO. The documentary features employees who bought into the concept of changing the culture of work and includes a nod to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that sent people fleeing from co-working spaces to home offices. Reps for WeWork, which is based in New York City, did not respond to a request for comment for this item.

A person walks down the hall of a WeWork office in New York
A new Hulu documentary shows how WeWork created an unusually fervent workplace culture. A WeWork office space in New York is shown in 2019.
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

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What intrigued Rothstein about Neumann’s journey was that WeWork, with its hip office spaces and communal gathering spots, was addressing an actual need in the marketplace. As the documentary hits streaming, WeWork is trying to stage a comeback by going public by merging with a SPAC.

“The company was onto something, addressing a real need and a gap in the way that we interact with one another, and the fact that we made this in the pandemic really clarified that, because it became quite clear how much we miss these relationships when they’re taken away from us,” Rothstein said.

The entertainment industry’s interest in cult-like business leaders comes at a time when Hollywood itself is dominated by spreadsheet-toting MBAs rather than magnetic visionaries. That might be a good thing, in some respects.

Beyond the story of Neumann, Rothstein said he wanted to explore a capitalist system that allows such visionaries to leave with golden parachutes when things go wrong, while the employees are left hanging.

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“On the one hand, you need big visionary personalities who are going to come in and do big bold things, and that’s part of what makes America a dynamic country,” Rothstein said. “But on the other hand, that doesn’t inevitably have to lead to this crushing wealth disparity.”

Meanwhile, if people at your workplace start regularly chanting the company name, maybe start updating your LinkedIn.

Stuff we wrote

Photo illustration of Regé-Jean Page in "Bridgerton" with an open door in the background
Regé-Jean Page will not return for season two of Netflix’s hit series “Bridgerton.”
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Liam Daniel / Netflix)

— British heartthrob Regé-Jean Page shocked “Bridgerton” fans when he announced he would not be returning to the Netflix show. Meredith Blake and I dug into what the surprise departure says about how the shift to streaming has changed what talent deals look like. For a show on a broadcast network, a typical deal would have “basically infinite options for the studio to exercise after each season,” explained attorney Nick Soltman. That’s not the case for Netflix, which has little incentive to extend its shows beyond a couple of seasons.

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Endeavor is trying to go public again. The WME parent revealed in its prospectus that it will take 100% control of UFC and also that it lost $625.3 million (gulp) on $3.47 billion in revenue in 2020. CEO Ari Emanuel and Executive Chairman Patrick Whitesell went without salaries for the year once COVID-19 hit (and Endeavor announced substantial layoffs), but don’t feel too sorry for them. The executives earned bonuses of more than $6 million and $2 million, respectively. Elon Musk joined the board.

— Viewers are rediscovering Court TV as the country focuses on the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, Stephen Battaglio reports. Also from Battaglio: Greg Gutfeld goes after late-night laughs for Fox News. And here’s a look behind the scenes at football star Aaron Rodgers’ game plan to succeed Alex Trebek on “Jeopardy!”

A nurse practitioner is facing scrutiny after the 2017 suicide of YouTube star turned actress Stevie Ryan, reports Daniel Miller. Gerald Baltz, who for two years had provided Ryan (the star of VH1’s “Stevie TV”) with psychiatric care, is the subject of a formal accusation filed by the head of the California Board of Registered Nursing that alleges he had an inappropriate, boundary-crossing relationship with Ryan while she was his patient, and then a sexual relationship with her while she was receiving treatment at the facility where he worked. Baltz’s attorney said she had advised him to not respond to questions from The Times.

— Stacy Perman on producer Amy Baer’s push to cater to the 50-plus moviegoing crowd, an oft-neglected segment of the potential audience.

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‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ vs. COVID-19

The Legendary-Warner Bros. release grossed a pandemic-record $32.2 million in the U.S. and Canada Friday through Sunday and a total of $48.5 million during the five-day Easter weekend, according to studio estimates, Sonaiya Kelley reports.

A couple thoughts:

  • It’s remarkable that a movie available on HBO Max for no extra charge managed to give a desperately needed boost to theaters. “While there is still a long way to go for the industry to get back to normal, this past weekend’s performance hopefully offers a stepping stone in the rebuilding process and likely gives studios a reason to stop delaying their films,” writes Eric Handler of MKM Partners.
  • It’s very possible that having “Godzilla vs. Kong” on streaming boosted the word-of-mouth effect on social media and, somewhat counterintuitively, helped multiplex ticket sales that way. The movie is fun, pure escapism, and there’s virtually no competition in terms of big blockbusters. HBO Max won’t say how many people watched online but it felt as if a lot of people were watching.
  • The China numbers are interesting too. Sales were $44.2 million during the weekend, marking a 37% drop in week two. That’s an impressive hold in a market that has not been kind to U.S. studio-produced movies. It wasn’t No. 1 this weekend, though. That distinction went to local production “Sister,” which took in $53.5 million.
  • Legendary’s “MonsterVerse” is a rare example of a non-Marvel shared-universe franchise that audiences actually want to see.
  • Is Hollow Earth theory a mainstream thing now?

Number of the week

number of the week graphic: $450 million
(Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times)

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Film Twitter was aghast last week at the news that Netflix is paying some $450 million for two sequels to “Knives Out,” the 2019 whodunit starring Daniel Craig that became a surprise hit for MRC and Lionsgate. The price tag raised eyebrows and sent film business watchers scurrying to speculate about whether Netflix had overpaid.

Michael Rifkin, executive director of international productions at Sony Pictures, had a thread on Twitter piecing together the possible rationale.

The first one, written and directed by Rian Johnson with a production budget of just $40 million, was highly profitable, and “Knives Out” may have value for Netflix beyond the two movies this deal encompasses. Terms of the deal, which was brokered by CAA, aren’t public but this has the potential to become a legit movie franchise for Netflix, especially if the streamer is able to spin off additional movies and series.

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Here’s the interesting part, though, from the Variety story on the deal: “MRC had a single-picture deal to produce ‘Knives Out,’ negotiated by CAA on behalf of Johnson and his producing partner Ram Bergman, and it’s unclear if they will return for more.”

Producers in Hollywood I’ve talked to are extremely interested in the details of this particular point. The fact that Johnson and Bergman were able to get an original movie financed by MRC and also retained the rights to shop sequels around the industry speaks to the potential power of creators when intellectual property is in high demand. The top-dollar purchase price marks a prime example of the premium that streamers and studios put on proven IP.

MRC confirmed that the company had a one-picture deal for “Knives Out” but noted that it remains in business with Johnson, Bergman and their company T-Street for other projects. “We are proud of our partnership with Ram and Rian on the first ‘Knives Out,’ and look forward to all the great development in film and television through our first-look [deal],” MRC said.

Hollywood production

Filming in Los Angeles has picked up since earlier in the year as vaccines become more widely available. People on the ground describe a lot of activity happening locally. Still, last week — a holiday week, of course — marked the second straight filming decline in the Greater L.A. area, according to numbers from FilmLA.

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On-location film tracker

More top stories

The lawyer behind the throne at Fox: Even before the company’s CEO, Lachlan Murdoch, moved to Australia, Viet Dinh was seen as Fox’s power center. (NYT)

— Despite history-making nominations, “Judas and the Black Messiah’s” all-Black producing team finds Oscar success to be “bittersweet.” (THR)

— Major music deal: Justin Bieber, BTS and Ariana Grande are under the same corporate roof now. (Variety)

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New Jersey woos film studios amid outcry over Georgia’s voting law (WSJ). WGA, SAG-AFTRA and ViacomCBS have issued statements decrying new voting restrictions (Deadline). The MLB has moved the All-Star Game out of the state.

— Fascinating profile of Laura Wasser, who will cleave the union of Kim and Kanye: A Hollywood divorce lawyer with lots of practice. (NYT)

Finally ... a recommendation

The cover of Rachel Bloom’s book “I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are”
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Grand Central Publishing)

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” co-creator Rachel Bloom’s audiobook “I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are” (narrated by the author) is everything you’d want from the ultimate grown-up theater kid.

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Bonus track: In an April Fool’s gag, Australian police came up with an innovative way to expand their K9 squad with dachshunds.


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