I’ll be honest, I never paid much attention to WeWork during its insane rise and even crazier implosion. Although its founders swore it was a tech company, in reality it was just another office rental company. Unlike the Theranos slow motion car crash, where I had covered him enough to be the recipient of his jackboot PR operation, I only knew the bullet points here. You know: Softbank’s massive valuation, the yoga nonsense adjacent to Paltrow, and – my attorneys have advised me to use the word “interesting” – the interesting way its co-founder did business. But as crazy as I thought this story was, WeWork: Or, the making and breaking of a $ 47 billion unicorn shows that it was a lot, much worse.
The film tells the story of WeWork, a New York coworking company co-founded by Miguel McKelvey and Adam Neumann. They both grew up in common living spaces – a township in Oregon for McKelvey and an Israeli kibbutz for Neumann. Their dream has been described as a form of “capitalist kibbutz”, which took the form of building a series of beautiful and expensive offices in New York City. These facilities were little more than open, shared offices with free food and drink, but Neumann sold them as a new way of life. He wasn’t renting offices for freelancers, entrepreneurs, dreamers and startups, he was building “The We Community”. It wasn’t just Regus with better furniture, no it would be change the world.
If you’ve seen documentaries like Go clear, The inventor or Fyre: The Biggest Party That Ever Happened, then the rhythms of this movie will be familiar. There is a supposedly charismatic individual who is able to convince people to buy into their vision, however messy it may be. Then people are put in bigger and bigger situations to justify this first decision, first as a triumph, then as a farce. It may be the story of a company that hit a massively inflated valuation before reality hit, but it is framed like a cult. On a panel at this year’s South by Southwest virtual conference, producer Ross Dinerstein – who produced HBO’s 2020 Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults – sees a lot of similarities. “People want to be inspired, people want to be motivated,” he explained, “and be a part of something bigger than the whole.” He added that “what Adam preached” resonated with him until “he developed this messianic complex, and the money got foolish, and they lost their focus.”
One thing Neumann was clearly good at doing was throwing a party, and WeWork became infamous for its summer camp-style retreats. Obviously, all of the best cults involve removing people from their normal social circle and dragging them to a remote location for further indoctrination. At one point, the event is described as “Fyre Festival well done,” with a great emphasis on the company’s drink culture. Much of the film features moments of people cutting down plans, hosting ragers in office mini-bars in a way that feels unhealthy. The film forgets to mention the the Wall Street newspaper story that claims that Neumann, after discussing mass layoffs as a cost-cutting measure, had employees bring tequila shots to drink.
One of the things that I missed was the expansion of the We franchise beyond coworking spaces to include apartment complexes. WeLive converted an office building into a series of “tiny” apartments with fold-out wall beds and spartan furniture. The facilities are shared and it is clear that We’s drinking culture was ingrained in the living quarters as well. In order to register, August Urbish, WeLive’s first tenant, was invited to write an essay on why he wanted to live there. As people integrated into the building, they found themselves extremely islanders. At one point Urbish says he was going to a birthday party for someone who did not live in the building, and noticed that people seemed to recoil in disgust.
WeGrow, the company’s educational effort led by brand chief and impact manager for WeWork – and Neumann’s wife – Rebekah. WeGrow was a New York-based private elementary school with an installation designed by Bjarke Ingels who, HuffPost reported, cost between $ 22,000 and $ 42,000 per year for tuition. The film does little more than a punchline, something designed to satisfy Rebekah Neumann’s apparent ego. Forgetting, of course, that such an enterprise was supported by someone else’s money and affected the children of others. (Yes, it’s hard to feel sad that rich people spend even richer money, but the human element is lost).
Many of these modern business chess documentaries often have holes in their center because they fail to capture the motivations behind their main characters. This is in part because the Neumanns refused to contribute to a documentary that would likely paint them in a cruel light. But the filmmakers praise Adam’s messianic and attractive personality a lot, but it doesn’t show here. Moreover, the filmmakers seem convinced that Neumann is an ingenuous with good intentions. “When we started this,” producer Ross Dinerstein said. “I thought there would be federal charges, criminal indictments. […] I got into this thought that he was a white collar criminal, and he is not. Dinerstein added that he felt that Neumann “played by the rules” and that “people allowed him,” the same people he said could, or should have, stepped in when things seemed to get out of hand.
The filmmakers said they think the biggest problem is the nature of late-stage capitalism right now, which helps people like Neumann. After all, you just need to make a good bet, and you could be a major investor in the next trillion dollar giant. They partially blamed Masayoshi Son, CEO of Softbank and director of the Vision Fund, who handed Neumann a check for more than $ 4 billion. Their argument was that the ability of venture capital to fund losing companies until they become behemoths is a bad thing. But this thesis is not clearly spelled out in the film itself, which seeks to present WeWork’s assessment in glowing 3D numbers floating in the air, Panic room style, in the sunny streets of New York.
It’s frustrating because there seems to be a more sinister story lurking on the fringes of this film, and it’s a shame it isn’t explored further. Former employees say Neumann can get “anybody to do anything,” and he disdainfully compares his personal assistant to an employee who walks by in a meeting. The time when summer camps are made mandatory and employees are required to wear tracking bracelets does not appear to be the case. Not to mention Neumann’s limited mention of licensing the “We” brand to his company for nearly $ 6 million – which he subsequently received. refund. Lip service, too, gets paid for the reports he bought properties of its own pocket just to rent from WeWork.
I also found my brain itchy at times that were clearly removed from the narrative to tell a cohesive story, at the expense of explanation. The story seems incomplete until you google some of the post-facto answers, like GreenDesk, and who funded the initial installations of WeWork. Likewise, the business fundamentals of the company are glossed over until later, when the amount of money it is losing is finalized. The film cuts off moments where Neumann potentially distorted WeWork’s profitability, but never with the weight the subject should be given.
During the panel, director Jed Rothstein said he was “more interested in [Adam Neumann] when I’m done doing that, rather than less. In a way, it’s a small indictment of his own film, which fails to really fight against a cohesive portrayal of Neumann. This is something that several documentaries have struggled to achieve, so I don’t blame Rothstein here. Especially since the film was produced in the midst of a pandemic – the only clue being a hat to everyone hiding in the end – which deserves praise. But for these faults, WeWork: Or, the making and breaking of a $ 47 billion unicorn remains an essential visualization, even if it is a little superficial. When you’re done, the first thing you’ll do is start looking for a book or newspaper article that can help you explore this moment of collective madness even more.
Oh, and if you ever aspire to run your own business, don’t blackmail your company name to your employees. Or sing whatever else, for that matter, because it’s a very clear red flag that footage of you is going to end up on a revealing documentary five to ten years later.
WeWork: Or, the making and breaking of a $ 47 billion unicorn premieres April 2, on Hulu.