Pixelon: The True Story of Streaming Video's Greatest Fraud
“It’s like playing an ape in Planet of the Apes: It’s easier if you look in the mirror and you’re wearing an ape costume. You’re like, ‘Wow, look, I’m an ape.’ But when you look in the mirror and you have 51 dots on your face and a gray unitard with a helmet, you go, ‘Oh wow, I have to really become an ape. This is daunting’,” Zahn says. “It was the same kind of experience, but it was really fulfilling. It was just a blast. I had so much fun, I couldn’t wait to go to work.”
Valley of the Boom is full of rule-breaking narrative choices, including a choreographed dance scene for Fenne, where, in a joyful moment celebrating his new life, he suddenly appears in a tuxedo and dances through a church with a partner. It’s the only scene in the series where he’s not heavy, which was Zahn’s idea.
“It was kind of last minute, it was like, ‘Hey I don’t think he wears a fat suit. He doesn’t see himself as being fat, besides he put weight on to hide from the law’,” Zahn says. “That was a good opportunity to see inside his head. He looks in the mirror. He’s beautiful.”
Zahn has many moments where he directly addresses the viewer, and that was a challenge for him. Actors are trained to ignore the camera, to play to it without acknowledging it. So directly addressing the camera took some practice. In one scene where he’s driving a car, Fenne takes out a letter he wrote and reads it to the viewer. Zahn thought the car would be pulled on a trailer, but when the day came there was no trailer and he had to drive. The problem was he hadn’t memorized the letter since he thought he’d be able to read it. He crammed as much into his memory as he could in 5 minutes, then shot the scene while driving small circles in a church parking lot.
“The shoot was filled with moments like that. Once you realize, ‘Okay this is definitely produced and well-thought out, but at the same time it’s kind of like putting on a play in the basement, in a way’,” Zahn says. “That’s what you want. I don’t want to be bored. You don’t want to be complacent. That’s the road to ruin in this business.”
The Man Behind the Myth
While some of the cast members were able to meet their real-life counterparts, Zahn never met David Kim Stanley. A producer tracked Stanley down, finding him married and back in Virginia. But getting him to talk was a complicated back-and-fourth. For one thing, he’s defensive about whether or not Pixelon was a con, and insists his tech was sound. He sent software to Carnahan as proof. While it worked for him and he was able to stream video, experts he showed it to said the software didn’t hold up.
Valley of the Boom director Matthew Carnahan, who was executive producer of House of Lies and Dirt, consults with Steve Zahn on the set.
Stanley was willing to be interviewed on camera, but only if the producers didn’t interview former Pixelon staffers. Carnahan agreed, leading to a complicated negotiation with lawyers. Ultimately, however, Stanley backed out. Carnahan believes the subject felt like too much of a confrontation.
He’s very much in denial and playing defense about what happened and his tech, and he talks about having other big projects brewing,” Carnahan says. “And who knows? He might. He’s a very, very intelligent and resourceful man, and he’s a survivor.”
While Stanley is a free man today, the law did catch up with him years ago, as the series shows. Following the disastrous iBash, those around him get wise to his ways and he’s fired from his company. But the real turning point is when a former colleague spots him on a wanted poster. Fenne runs, but soon turns himself in.
Without Fenne to interview, Valley of the Boom brings in Pixelon veterans who describe the unreality of their former office. Most of the Pixelon narration is covered by tech journalist Dan Goodin, but the show also includes input from entrepreneur Mark Cuban. As a cofounder of Broadcast.com, Cuban was a competitor to Pixelon, and far more capable in business and technology than Fenne. He delivers the final word on the multimillion-dollar flop that was iBash.
“What entrepreneur is dumb enough to spend all of their money on a party when their technology is not ready, and they need to get their technology ready? Ten, fifteen million dollars, are you kidding me?” Cuban asks. “I’ve been investing in technology companies my entire adult life. There are certain red flags that I always look for that tell me a company’s a scam. Probably the biggest one, the most enormous red flag for any potential investment, is throwing a party. The bigger the party, the bigger the scam.”
The End of an Era
Pixelon is the Valley of the Boom story Streaming Media readers will get the most pleasure from (Did Fenne really convince people they were seeing amazing streaming technology by playing full-screen locally stored files? Yes, he did.), but there are two other stories here just as fun. The lead story focuses on Jim Clark, Marc Andreessen, and James Barksdale as they lead a young Netscape through a successful IPO and build up their browser. They’re riding high until Microsoft decides it wants to own this market, as well. Desperate for market share, they find an unlikely ally in AOL, or so they think.
The second story focuses on Todd Krizelman and Stephan Paternot, two Cornell University students who create a social site called theglobe.com from their dorm rooms. Sensing the enormous future of the internet, they work family connections for funding to keep their site operational, then work boardrooms to find real investments. Their hustle pays off when they lead their company through the largest IPO in history (one that, the series is quick to point out, makes early investors a lot more money than theglobe.com ever sees). Funding doesn’t solve their problems, however, but shackles them with a corporate master who doesn’t get their vision and corporate synergies that take the young company in the wrong direction. If that wasn’t enough, Paternot brags on CNN about his debauched NYC lifestyle (while being shown dancing on a nightclub bar wearing vinyl pants) and brings theglobe.com the wrong kind of attention. It’s a cautionary tale for any young buck flush with VC cash.
“I love the heart of those two guys, Paternot and Krizelman,” Carnahan says. “Theirs is a uniquely sort of American story and I just love those guys so much. I was so impressed with not only their intelligence and acumen, but their ability to maintain their integrity. They never really treated anybody badly during their massive Olympian rise.”
Besides Cuban, talking heads include Arianna Huffington (who executive produced), many of the subjects (Clark, Barksdale, Paternot, and Krizelman), and former Pixelon and Netscape employees. Don’t look for Andreessen, though. As the actor who plays him informs the viewer, “the real Marc Andreessen would probably rather munch on a tasty snack of goat balls and broken glass than reminisce about the good old days at Netscape.”
“It was a little bit of just finding three companies that were very, very different, and it was also a little bit intuition,” Carnahan says. “It was a little bit edge-of-your-seat drama versus comedy versus crazy thriller.”
Valley of the Boom debuts on National Geographic on January 13. The first two episodes are now available online.
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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