Any film about real people, real companies and public disputes are always going to come under some scrutiny. There will always be a “he said, she said” no matter how documented the events appear to be. Therefore, it’s no surprise that one of fall’s most anticipated releases, “The Social Network,” is being criticized from its subject matter: the founders of Facebook.
Based on legal documents, interviews with co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Ben Mezrich’s novel “The Accidental Billionaires,” “Network” was written by Aaron Sorkin and focuses on the company’s more public co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and the story of Facebook’s miraculous rise. Directed by David Fincher, the picture features appealing young actors including Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake. It’s also been selected as the opening night film at the prestigious 2010 New York Film Festival and elicited raves from former LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas and Rolling Stones’ Peter Travers. And the buzz from others who have seen it so far is that it’s very, very good.
What’s slowly being revealed is there are a number of scenes in the picture that cast Zuckerberg and former Facebook President Sean Parker (aka the founder of Napster) in a very negative light that may be completely untrue. According to an article in today’s New York Times, a consultant on the picture admits that one sequence that finds Parker delivering dialogue while a pair of teenage girls offer partygoers lines of coke off their breasts is one of several that were “mostly made up.” (It also notes this particular scene may have to be removed to keep the film’s intended PG-13 rating).
Moreover, the article makes great pains to note that prolific prestige producer Scott Rudin has spent months trying to ease the company’s concerns, but that after showing a rough version of the picture to both VP of Communications Elliot Schrage and COO Sheryl Sandberg it was clear “they did not like it.”
At this point, it appears Facebook is going to stay mostly quiet until the film opens, although Zuckerberg said in a recent interview, “Honestly, I wish that when people try to do journalism or write stuff about Facebook that they at least try to get it right.” and “The movie is fiction.” Yes, someone clearly isn’t thrilled about having his life story depicted on the big screen at the ripe, young age of 26.
What is most concerning for Facebook is that the picture is arriving at what could be a cultural tipping point for the social enterprise. Just like Friendster (to a lesser extent) and MySpace before it, the popularity curve for Facebook may be about to hit a downward turn. How many of you have had friends who have decided to turn off their Facebook or stopped posting as they move to twitter? As it’s grown to over 130 million unique users in the U.S. alone, just behind Google, the inevitable negatives of Facebook are starting to rear their ugly heads. From users who don’t realize how much of their private lives are online, to members who are conned by “fake” friends both socially and financially, what was at first seen as an aesthetically pleasing alternative to MySpace with more privacy controls is clearly not the online social panacea many hyped it to be.
From a publicity perspective, the company is also coming under increasing scrutiny as the media inevitable begin the well known American phenomenon of building up our heroes and then tearing them down. What makes things easier in this case is Zuckerberg’s Harvard origins (oh, an elitist who hit it big!) and his continuing cockiness when speaking in public (paging Mark Cuban). In many ways, what Facebook has to fear is that “The Social Network’s” depiction of the legal battles between Zuckerberg and Saverin only solidify this perception of the company being run by an ungrateful and undeserving billionaire (someone might want to start pushing Facebook for Good a bit more).
Granted, it also doesn’t hurt the “Social Network’s” marketing campaign if Facebook becomes increasingly antsy surrounding the picture publicly as it only drives more awareness for what Sony Pictures hope is both a box office hit and true awards contender. That’s why both Rudin and Sorkin had no problem discussing the issue with the Times. On the flip side, the filmmakers have to be very careful. They are walking a thin line as many moviegoers are assuming the film is the “true” story of the battle for Facebook. Nothing causes panic among Oscar consultants than constant calls of inaccuracy among a historical based picture (see “The Hurricane,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Amistad”). And with “Network” opening on Oct. 1, you can debate there is either too much time to quell such concerns or too much time for them to fester.
Something tells this prognosticator however, there won’t be a lot of accepted friend requests among either camp.
For the latest entertainment commentary and breaking news year round, follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HitFixGregory .