When Artisan Entertainment was getting ready to send Startup.com to the Sundance Film Festival last January, the studio’s CEO, Amir Malin, had a simple three-word suggestion for the guy who’s generally seen as the star of the movie: ”Do not come.”
Which seems odd, at first. Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, a young entrepreneur with a Bill Clintonesque mix of bulk, brains, and brusque go-go panache, is one of the most fascinating people you’ll find in a film this year. In 1999 Isaza Tuzman and his friends quit their swank Wall Street jobs and launched govWorks, a dotcom venture that was intended to help people interact more easily with the government. Flush with confidence, they agreed to let a couple of documentary filmmakers, Isaza Tuzman’s roommate Jehane Noujaim and The War Room‘s Chris Hegedus, tag along on what promised to be a glorious march to wealth, power, and public service.
The film came out fine; govWorks didn’t. Startup.com chronicles the fate of the company as it passes from the frenzy of creation to the euphoria of hype to the desolation of collapse. (Just days before Sundance, the company’s assets were sold, leaving Isaza Tuzman and his employees with no lasting financial reward for their countless 20-hour days.) Cameras capture Isaza Tuzman as he pitches the idea to Silicon Valley fat cats, leads his staff in goofball pep rallies, brazenly slips his business card to President Clinton, and — in a startling climax that serves as a Rorschach test for how people feel about the whole Internet ”revolution” — pink-slips his best friend, govWorks cofounder Tom Herman.
Naturally, the folks at Artisan worried that letting Isaza Tuzman watch Startup.com with a riled-up Sundance crowd might be a little rough. ”There was a strong feeling that he would be sitting there, seeing this film, and all of a sudden 400 people would turn to him — and they would not necessarily be smiling,” says Malin. ”You don’t want someone to go through something like that.”
Isaza Tuzman went to Sundance anyway. (”He talked about coming to the screening in a wig and sunglasses,” says Noujaim, ”but he didn’t do that.”) He even answered prickly questions from the audience. ”It wasn’t that I wanted to take abuse,” says Isaza Tuzman, 29, ”but I felt like I needed to face the fire. I knew that the decision to allow ourselves to be filmed had consequences. And I felt like the right way to face them head-on was to watch the film with an audience and see the reaction and live with it.” He sat through Startup.com twice — once on video, then at the festival — but he won’t do it again. ”It’s certainly not enjoyable for me,” he says with a wince. ”It’s excruciating.”
Ironically, such agony can be blamed in part on his own art-of-the-deal jones for networking. Just as govWorks was getting off the ground, his roommate Noujaim, a friend from Harvard, was leaving a production job at MTV and dreaming of making a documentary. Meanwhile, a govWorks exec named David Camp knew Hegedus and her husband, D.A. Pennebaker, director of the 1967 Bob Dylan portrait Don’t Look Back. The couple was sniffing around for a way to explore the manic dotcom phenomenon. ”I loved the whole atmosphere of this time in history when all these kids were on fire about leaving their jobs and flocking to Internet companies,” Hegedus says. ”It reminded me of my youth in the ’60s and that whole antiestablishment, we-can-take-over-the-world thing — but with a capitalist spin.”