Director of a scathing new documentary on WeWork’s rise and spectacular fall tells all
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Amid scenes of reckless hustling and hard-partying startup culture, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, is sure to strike a chord among critics of the tech industry.
The documentary, which premieres online at the SXSW Film Festival on March 17 and then on Hulu starting April 2, chronicles the spectacular rise and fall of WeWork’s enigmatic cofounder, Adam Neumann. He lands his company one of the largest startup valuations of all time by convincing investors that his coworking real estate venture is, improbably, the next big social platform.
The movie details how Neumann, living large while pursuing growth at all costs, funded unprofitable operations with successive rounds of investment and, when faced with nearly a billion dollars in losses, pulled off a feat no one saw coming: a deal with Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, founder of SoftBank’s Vision Fund, that sent WeWork’s valuation into the stratosphere.
But like the house of cards WeWork was built upon, Neumann ultimately is undone by his own shocking disclosures when trying to take WeWork public in 2019. Within weeks, he is ousted as CEO for his shenanigans, and WeWork’s valuation goes into free fall.
Weaving together firsthand accounts from former employees and journalists who covered the debacle, including surprising footage of interactions with Ashton Kutcher and Gwyneth Paltrow, WeWork serves as a chilling reminder that much can go sideways when investors bet on the wrong horse.
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jed Rothstein spoke with Fortune about why he decided to make this film and what he hopes the audience will gain from watching it.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What drew you to this project?
I’ve always been fascinated by capitalism and how it rewards those who game the system.
In 2017, I explored financial intrigue in my documentary The China Hustle, which was about a massive fraud perpetrated by American banks on Wall Street. I saw similar themes in WeWork’s tale.
Here was a company that started out as a tiny desk-rental spot and quickly became one of the most valuable startups in the history of humankind before its sudden collapse. I was attracted to unpacking the gray areas of the story and exploring its human drama—how it happened, why it happened, who got hurt, who gained.
How did the film get made?
Ross Dinerstein of Campfire productions and I started talking about it last January and fist-bumped on it over lunch on March 5, just weeks before quarantine. That was the last time I saw him. I wrote the treatment in March, and we started making it in April. The entire film was shot and edited during the pandemic.
What was it like working with Hulu?
This was my first time working with Hulu, and I found them to be very collaborative. As a director, I don’t try to impose my will on every frame. They let us do our thing and sent smart notes that made the scenes fun. Without their input, we could have easily gone down a much darker path.
When making a documentary like this, how important is it to have an investigative mindset?
I think there’s a lot of value to using journalistic instinct. At the same time, I like to find a happy medium that not only engrosses the audience, but also entertains them with the best elements of Hollywood storytelling.
Why did you leave out the New York attorney general’s investigation into Neumann’s alleged self-dealing?
With a documentary you want to be thorough, but you also have to be focused. This was a complex story that could have gone in many different directions. There were a lot of things that were left out.
Did you speak to Adam Neumann or WeWork in the making of the film?
We tried. They declined to participate.
How did you get the outtakes of Neumann preparing for the IPO road show?
I can’t comment on our sources, but there was a lot of great material to mine on social media.
What surprised you most in making this film?
I was surprised by the emotionally charged and complicated journey that former employees had with the “We” and the “Me” of Adam Neumann. He was a charismatic leader that many followed and in the end felt deeply betrayed by. At the same time, many shared a sense of fulfillment for having strived for the dream.
It seems fitting that you’re premiering this film about freewheeling millennial culture on the anniversary of the pandemic shutting down that way of life. Is that why you chose SXSW?
Yes, there are many reasons why SXSW is a perfect fit, including its tech-forward audience who live in the world of startups and know WeWork, which has been an integral part of the show for years.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this film?
After a year of isolation and being kept apart from family and friends, my hope is that this film brings joy to the people watching it and reminds them of the good times we had when we were all together and the good times yet to come.
What’s next for you?
I’m excited to be working on a Fargo-esque spy thriller documentary that takes place in London and looking forward to life returning to some sense of normalcy.