A new satire takes another whack at Silicon Valley — and the men who fund it

Over the past few decades, Silicon Valley has gone from a sleepy string of towns on the San Francisco Peninsula packed with hard-working tech geeks to an epicenter of power in American culture. The tech industry has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives. Venture capitalists have been among the largest beneficiaries of this shift, amassing billions amid the rise of companies like Uber, Facebook and Tesla, and many have eagerly used their wealth and stature to influence politics, policy, culture and the future of civilization.

In theory, their ribs can withstand an elbow or two. The HBO show “Silicon Valley” was happy to let the industry’s moneymen have it, but that sharp satire concluded in 2019. Now comes “The Disruptors,” a new independent movie by writer and director Adam Frucci that pokes at these Silicon Valley power players and the world they’ve ushered in.

The film’s protagonists are Will, a ride-share driver played by actor and comedian Grant O’Brien, and Glenn, an agoraphobic trans hacker played by actor and comedian Ally Beardsley. The two best friends conspire to scam Bruce Marcus, one of Silicon Valley’s most famous venture capitalist billionaires, played by actor and comedian Marc Evan Jackson, out of millions of dollars.

They devise a plan to mimic a game-changing technology that would allow humans to control the devices around them, such as their phones and television sets, with only their mind. (It’s not a far cry from the promise of Elon Musk’s Neuralink technology, which Musk claims may one day allow users to operate their phones via their thoughts.) Chaos ensues.

The film doesn’t just spoof the culture of founder worship that puts Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs on a pedestal, it also critiques the funding model that has underpinned tech’s rise. Jackson’s character eschews due diligence on his investments and relies on friend-of-a-friend “warm intros” when deciding whom to dole his dollars out to next. In real life, such shortcuts have resulted in VCs pumping millions into failed start-ups such as Theranos and WeWork.

The venture capital industry has played an outsize role in Frucci’s life. He began blogging about tech for Gizmodo, Gawker’s tech site, in 2006, getting a front-row seat to the Silicon Valley hype cycle. He witnessed the birth of social media, the gig economy, the iPhone and more. But it was what he saw venture capitalists do to the media that left him feeling disillusioned about the promises of Big Tech — and led him to write “The Disruptors” in the early days of the pandemic.

“The Disruptors” is out now on video on-demand. Frucci spoke with The Washington Post about creating the film, the state of Silicon Valley and what the tech industry is doing to all of our lives.

How did the movie come together, and what gave you the idea?

I moved to L.A. seven years ago to take a job running development for Dropout, CollegeHumor’s streaming service. I worked with Grant and Ally, the stars of the movie, on a show called “Total Forgiveness.” It was an unscripted reality show about the student debt crisis. We were working on the second season in January 2020, when IAC, the parent company of CollegeHumor, laid off 95 percent of the staff, us included. Then, we know what happened six weeks after that. Writing the movie was my pandemic project.

Every company I’ve worked for has been killed by tech and venture capitalists. I was a Gizmodo editor at Gawker from 2006 to 2010, so my first company was literally murdered by a venture capitalist. [Frucci is referring to a lawsuit backed by investor Peter Thiel that ultimately bankrupted the site.] Then, I launched my own site called Splitsider under the Awl, and I got to see what it’s like trying to run a functioning media business that isn’t going for scale with hundreds of millions of VC dollars. It was impossible. I had the experience of seeing traffic go up, revenue go down month over month and just seeing the insane money being pumped into [other] websites that don’t exist anymore.

When I went to College Humor we were dealing with YouTube’s capriciousness and Facebook’s capriciousness, and that general tech arrogance was just something that I felt like I was stewing in for a long time.

What made you want to take aim at the venture capital industry?

Venture capitalists are some of the most powerful people on the planet. Their choices and their ethos and how they make their investments have way more impact on how everybody lives their day-to-day lives than any politician. They are the ones controlling our society, and they remake it in their image.

I feel like it’s just not talked about. These guys are these delicate narcissists, out in Northern California, and they’re just like: Not only do we not want to be criticized, but we would like to be celebrated because we are visionary geniuses.

I find it really frustrating; when you actually see their track record, I don’t see them as visionaries. I see them as followers of each other and one big circle all in their WhatsApp groups. You see it happen. They’ll all be investing in blockchain technology, and then the next year, they’re all investing in the metaverse. Now it’s all in AI. It’s like, if you’re visionaries, why are you all doing the same thing at the same time, all the time?

Why did you choose to make this film a comedy?

The goal was to tackle this subject in a way that was funny and not pedantic or like a lecture. I wanted it not to be condescending, just like, let’s just show the effects of the world that these VCs have built on real people, people who don’t have power, and try to find the humanity and the joy and the fun and the comedy in that.

Elon Musk is mentioned in your film, and Marc Evan Jackson’s character is very Musk-like. What was your inspiration for his character, and how much did you draw from real Silicon Valley venture capitalists?

It was a combination of a bunch of the famous VC guys. Guys like Paul Graham and Marc Andreessen and Keith Rabois. These guys who are so arrogant and so in these bubbles where they are just surrounded by people calling them geniuses. All their reply guys on Twitter think that they are masters of the universe and deserve to be. These guys have money, and so they seem to think that this money proves “I’m a genius and that I’m special and that I’m better than everybody else.” I just think those are really ripe character traits for a blustery villain. Writing the character for Marc, I was very much taking inspiration from the real dudes who are out there being blowhards every day on Twitter. I went to their feeds and just did some deep dives.

What was the process like making an independent movie during this era of Hollywood that has also been so disrupted by Big Tech?

The timing has been interesting. From when I started writing and making the thing to now, things have changed quite a bit. It’s not the best time for independent filmmaking, especially ones without big, famous movie stars.

I love movies and I know there’s a lot of people out there who do as well. So I’m hoping that all the major streaming service stuff shakes out and we can return to some sort of happy medium where there’s a bit of money for independent films that aren’t just comic book movies and horror movies to find their audiences.

[Hollywood] is now kind of similar to the VC mind-set of scale at all costs. Where everything has to be the biggest thing or it’s not worth doing. Actually, I kind of like the small businesses that are self-sustaining and not trying to go public. And I like the small movies that are for specific people, not everybody on the planet. I hope that a business model reemerges to support that, but I don’t know, we’ll see.

There’s been so much concern among those in entertainment about the rise of AI. As a filmmaker, how are you thinking about the challenges and opportunities these new technologies pose?

I saw the really impressive [Sora] videos that came out, but I’m pretty skeptical of AI. The thing is, you can’t tweak those things. You put in a prompt and it will just spit something out, and it’s not something that will allow a control-freak obsessive director to get their vision exactly right. You still need to have actors and sets and to be shooting real people to have that control.

I could see AI helping, like, special effects, but I can’t imagine somebody making a movie AI prompt by prompt. People will try, but they’re going to end up with weird jumbles of things that don’t have intent behind them.

Imagine Steven Spielberg putting in, “shark daytime, guy I’m being thrown in mouth, guy saying we’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Is that going to work? No, he’s going to frame that shot exactly how he wants to frame it, he’s going to direct that actor exactly how he wants to direct them. He’s going to have the special effects exactly how he wants them. And I think most directors would be the same.

What are some takeaways you hope people will have from watching this movie?

I hope that it makes people think about the powerless people, the normal, the average people who are getting tossed around by these decisions made on high by people with billions of dollars. The people in Silicon Valley who are running these companies and are operating the way that the world works. These people have a huge impact on people’s day-to-day lives, and I don’t think that’s really taken into much consideration.

You can yell at your congressman, but your congressman is not actually doing anything. These guys [in Silicon Valley] are impacting your life. These guys who are rich and hiding behind their Twitter accounts, who don’t really have to answer to anybody. And I think they deserve to have a little bit more scrutiny.

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