Although Artisan Entertainment executives attribute the success of the documentary “Startup.com” to Internet word of mouth, the online buzz surrounding the documentary is taking a toll on one of its subjects, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman.
“Startup.com” follows the rise and fall of 1999 start-up govWorks.com, as well as the damage inflicted on the relationship between Isaza Tuzman, former CEO of govWorks, and his partner and childhood friend, Tom Herman.
GovWorks cut its staff from 250 to 60 late last year, and when Artisan began marketing the film, disgruntled former employees began posting messages on FuckedCompany.com. The messages criticized govWorks executives, including ethnic slurs directed at Isaza Tuzman, who is Hispanic and Jewish. The controversy was heightened when FuckedCompany.com posted messages supposedly from Isaza Tuzman, which he said he did not write.
Anonymous message boards, such as FuckedCompany.com, are “damaging to people in different ways,” Isaza Tuzman said. “You see the ugly side of human nature [on these types of sites]. A lot of these places spout freedom of speech rhetoric, but the idea is not that we have the freedom to walk around making racial slurs,” he said.
In addition, Isaza Tuzman does not believe FuckedCompany.com generated much interest in the film.
“It has been mostly word of mouth in the entrepreneurial community and the venture community. I don't know of any serious businesspeople who take time out of their day to spend time in any chat rooms, particularly in [chat rooms] that are so negative,” he said.
Ironically, Amorette Jones, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Artisan, attributed the documentary's $765,000 box-office receipts so far to the negative and positive buzz generated on FuckedCompany.com, Wired.com, eCompany.com, Salon.com, MSNBC.com, Aintitcool.com, Mr.Showbiz.com and other sites. Artisan is aiming for $1 million in ticket sales, which only the top 20 percent of documentaries achieve.
“The Web developed its own editorial and critique since its May release,” Jones said. “This has been primarily a word-of-mouth film working on its own.”
In fact, Artisan has not spent a dime on traditional offline and online advertising to promote “Startup.com.” Instead, the film company conducted a tour this spring in key markets, such as San Francisco and New York, at universities, business groups and organizations. Artisan also sponsored “Pink Slip Parties,” networking events for people who recently had lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, although Isaza Tuzman did not threaten legal action against FuckedCompany.com, as the site stated, he cautioned that “these type of sites” could face legal action in the future.
“There are pretty strong legal precedents regarding slander in a published setting. [Some] Web sites that are widely read are considered a published medium,” he said.
However, Isaza Tuzman said he is not the right person to fight the issue. “At one point I felt angry about it, but I try to focus my energy on positive things,” he said. “When you do something entrepreneurial, you take risks. This was an unanticipated risk, that people would slander me in Web chat rooms, but the minute you lose sleep over it, they've won.”
FuckedCompany.com did not respond to iMarketing News request for an interview.
GovWorks has been sold to First Data Corp. and was renamed govONE Solutions. GovWorks employees who were still with the company before the sale still work for govONE.
Isaza Tuzman and Herman, meanwhile, have formed Recognition Group, which specializes in restructurings, reorganizations and turnarounds of venture-funded companies. Recognition Group's proprietary fund also invests in “distressed and out-of-favor technology investing.”
Isaza Tuzman said he now advises executives going through a bankruptcy or sale to “put out of your mind the reputation consequences. Hopefully, the jobs you do save, they'll be appreciative. A lot of entrepreneurs freeze in those processes and think the [employee] morale will be destroyed.”
“Startup.com” is showing on a rotating schedule in major metropolitan areas across the United States this summer.