Pixelon: The True Story of Streaming Video's Greatest Fraud
The part of the story that people know, if they know the story at all, is iBash.
In 1999, a streaming video startup called Pixelon threw itself a massive coming out party. Dubbed iBash, it was held at the MGM Grand Las Vegas and included an impressive roster of talent: Kiss, Tony Bennett, Sugar Ray, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks, Natalie Cole, LeAnn Rimes, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, and The Who (reunited just for this show). David Spade and Cindy Margolis hosted. It cost somewhere in the range of $10 million to $15 million, a healthy chunk for a company that had only raised $30 million.
But iBash wasn’t just for the lucky attendees at the MGM. It was going to be broadcast live to a worldwide audience using Pixelon’s own streaming video technology. Internet users all around the globe would see a kick-ass party and discover how great the company’s technology was at the same time. And all that attention would serve as a giant boost for Pixelon’s eventual IPO.
As it turned out, there was one pretty large problem at the center of this plan: Pixelon’s software didn’t work. It had never worked. Oh, and the company’s founder and CEO was a con artist on the run from the law and living under an assumed name.
Welcome to the Valley
In January, National Geographic viewers can take a break from tomb explorations, wildlife safaris, and the deep blue sea, and instead explore the wilds of Silicon Valley. Valley of the Boom is a six-part series that dives into three absolutely true but almost-beyond-belief stories of 1990s dot-com bubble excess. Before the die was set for how a tech CEO or a venture capitalist should operate, the people in these stories were trying to figure it out in real time and making enormous mistakes with multi-million-dollar budgets.
The three stories told in Valley of the Boom are about the browser wars (with Netscape in the David role and Microsoft as Goliath), theglobe.com (how a popular early social site with the then-largest-ever IPO managed to lose it all), and Pixelon (where a lot of people who should have known better got taken by a charismatic swindler).
Valley of the Boom started with a phone call, when Jada Miranda, EVP, head of scripted television at STX Entertainment, called one of her clients, Matthew Carnahan, creator and executive producer of House of Lies, and asked if he was interested in the beginning of the browser wars. He wasn’t. He wasn’t a tech-head and he didn’t know anything about browsers. But he took a meeting and before long he was fascinated by the world of 1990s Silicon Valley, and how technology born from passion projects in people’s garages ended up changing the world.
“I also got really interested in it because the tech world is very forward looking. They don’t really examine the present and they almost never examine the past,” Carnahan says.
National Geographic had already expressed interest in the project. After reading through the research STX had given him, Carnahan told NatGeo he wanted to tell this story in a way that would “ruin their network and explode their brand.” He wasn’t interested in creating a documentary or a faithful reenactment. For three larger-than-life stories, he wanted to throw everything he could at the screen. The final work is a mix of scripted scenes and first-person confessions from the people who were actually there, but also includes a dance number, a rap battle, a full-on musical production number, and puppets. To his surprise, National Geographic went for it.
Actor Steve Zahn, best known for his work in That Thing You Do! and War for the Planet of the Apes, got the role of Michael Fenne (pronounced FAYN; his real name was David Kim Stanley), the Bible-quoting huckster who got a lot of smart and gullible people to help him create Pixelon. Zahn has a natural likability on camera, and that helped him win the part.
“David Kim Stanley is absolutely golden-tongued, charismatic, incredibly attractive to people,” Carnahan says. “He’s so winning, he’s such fun to talk to. He’s self-deprecating somehow while absolutely selling his brand, and he’s amazing. He’s an amazing personality. So Steve was perfect because Steve could do anything and you still want to like him.”
In National Geographic’s Valley of the Boom, Steve Zahn plays David Kim Stanley, who went on the lam, dyed his hair, and rechristened himself Michael Fenne before he created Pixelon, a company that raised millions for streaming technology that didn’t even exist.
For Zahn, the key to playing Fenne was seeing his good qualities. While he’s an absolute villain in this series, he’s the hero of his own story. Fenne has no trouble doing unscrupulous and illegal things, such as stealing the video streaming patent he uses to create Pixelon, but he believes in his actions and thinks he’s doing it all for the right reasons. When he leads mandatory Bible-study sessions in his office, he believes he’s doing good work.
Fenne’s charisma and intelligence help him fool other people, but he also fools himself. When an employee tells him Pixelon’s software is nowhere near ready for iBash, Fenne grows furious. When he hears about trouble with the broadcast, he assumes it will work itself out.
Valley of the Boom starts with Fenne on the run from a 36-year prison sentence in Virginia. He confessed to more than 50 fraud-related charges, having bilked his rural neighbors out of over a million dollars. Rather than serve his sentence, he goes on the lam to start a new life. He drives to the West Coast, dying his hair platinum blond along the way as a disguise. He repaints his car using several cans of spray paint. He gets stabbed during an attempted robbery, leaving him with a knife wound he has to sew up himself, and he removes an abscessed tooth with pliers. When he reaches California, he takes a shower on the beach—something Zahn sees as central to his new identity.
“Once he took a shower on the beach, he kind of cleansed himself in a way from all the sins of the past. He didn’t consider himself a felon really, although there are moments when he starts freaking out after he becomes more of a focal point,” Zahn says. “It’s easy when you’re nobody. The minute somebody is interested in what you’re doing, then it blindsided him. That was his weakness, his Achilles heel, like it is for so many. Fame can cloud your perception when you’re surrounded with people that you pay, that you think they’re your friends.”
Fenne’s persuasion and the lure of becoming dot-com millionaires convince a lot of people to devote themselves to Pixelon. While he speaks in Bible verses, Zahn doesn’t see religion as part of an act. The Appalachian-born son and grandson of preachers, that’s who Fenne really is. He convinces himself that he’s doing good, saving the biggest con for himself. This is a time when billions in investments are being thrown at barely sketched-out ideas, and Fenne is selling an idea. He’s no programmer, but he’s smart enough to understand the opportunity and take advantage of it.
To become Fenne, Zahn also had to look like him. Zahn and Carnahan talked about using prosthetics, but soon decided on a simpler route. If Zahn’s makeup and fat suit look unconvincing, that’s the point.
“The more we talked about it, the more [Carnahan] said, ‘I kind of want to just throw a wig on you in a fat suit.’ I said, ‘Like in high school? Like in the play?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I love that. It’s so theatrical. It put a little more pressure on.”
So the hair that looks like a cheap peroxide job is a wig, and the fat suit that looks more Halloween than Hollywood, are intentional. It’s a little crazy, but it works. It’s not only a constant reminder that Fenne is in disguise, but that no one sees through it.
We sat down for a Q&A with Pixelon's chief technology officer, Robert Feldman, getting an inside account of the deeply troubled streaming video company profiled in NatGeo's Valley of the Boom.
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