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Start-up flicks and Yahoo picks

GovWorks.com takes dot-com failure to the big screen, and Yahoo's new CEO may be choosing his own stars.

    As longtime readers know, this column's bailiwick encompasses not only the rumors, lies and innuendo that have flourished in the Internet economy, but the arts and culture that have limped feebly along with its rise and fall.

    We at the Rumor Mill take this corner of our turf seriously, even if we visit it only sporadically, and have tried to steer you toward excellence and away from indigestion.

    This week we saw Startup.com, the new documentary whose trailer dot-com-weary audience members have been lustily jeering at in San Francisco. All of us--including my 12-year-old son, Vermel, and his classmates Ammonia Blossom and Jai Pegue--were surprised to find ourselves captivated by the hour and 40-minute flick, which chronicles the launch, funding and disintegration of the Mayfield-funded GovWorks.com.

    Lending the doc drama and poignancy is the story of the friendship between CEO Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and his childhood friend, GovWorks CTO and founder Tom Herman. In the documentary's emotional climax, the former has the latter escorted from the building and banned from the premises.

    "It's 'Bonnie and Clyde' meets 'Wall Street,'" adjudged Vermel.

    "It's 'Macbeth' meets 'The Net,'" opined Jai Pegue.

    "It's 'Thelma and Louise' meets testosterone," Ammonia concluded disdainfully. "In the male version they spend way more time saying how much they love each other, and then one buddy jumps out of the car at the last minute before driving the other one off the cliff."

    Was that fair? To find out, I phoned Jehane Noujaim, the filmmaker and Isaza Tuzman's roommate during the movie's shooting, and asked her what she had in mind. Did the movie, in her view, have a moral?

    "I can't say there's a moral," said Noujaim, reached at the Manhattan two-bedroom she once shared with Kaleil. "It's been the most exciting part of watching this film that everyone takes away something different. People strongly disagree with each other over whether they side with Tom or Kaleil. Some think that it's a love story, others think it's just a bunch of guys trying to make a lot of money quick."

    The movie charts Isaza Tuzman's course as he blows through two friendships and two or three girlfriends, all in the name of start-up glory. What did that say about business, or about Isaza Tuzman?

    "I don't think it's quite as black-and-white as maybe it seems," replied the filmmaker. "Kaleil did give up a lot of personal relationships in trying to make this work. It's excruciating for him to watch how he treated his girlfriend when he watches the movie. It's a function of the huge amount of pressure they were under, of trying to create something from nothing as quickly as possible. You think you should always put friendship first. OK, but what about Kaleil's 220 other friends working for the company and the board of directors?"

    Meanwhile, the ruptured friendship with Herman appears to be on the mend, as the two are at it again with Recognition Group, a "crisis management" consulting start-up and VC fund for--you guessed it--dot-coms on the rocks.

    How did his experience at GovWorks influence Herman's decision to work with Isaza Tuzman again?

    "It made me think twice," said Herman, reached at the start-up's New York offices. "Maybe three times."

    Herman and Isaza Tuzman are busy teaching the new, burgeoning class of bleeding dot-coms what they learned from experience, like how to start generating revenue before blowing through $60 million in VC cash.

    They're not the only ones trying to help Internet start-ups these days. Competition includes one outfit named, coincidentally, Startup.com.

    "You would have thought they would have checked to see that there was a company and a Web site with that name, but apparently they didn't," said Gene Pettinelli, CEO of Startup.com Inc. in Wayland, Mass. "It would be a lot better if the company they depicted did well. I'm not happy about it."

    Pettinelli, who has not yet seen the movie, says he's weighing his options in responding to the film. As for the film's subjects, the CEO sounded a magnanimous note.

    "Because of our domain name, I guess we're not worried about new competition," said Pettinelli, who says nascent companies call him from all over the world because of the catchy Web address. "In our line of business, maybe we could help them start their company."

    In a tragic footnote to the movie, GovWorks' competitor EzGov lost its 36-year-old founding chairman Bryan Mundy--seen in the movie getting razzed by GovWorks staffers--in a freak house-fire just as Startup.com premiered at the Sundance film festival.

    Everybody loves the WB
    Silicon Alley start-ups aren't the only Internet businesses where CEOs like to surround themselves with their buddies. Skinformants say Yahoo's new CEO, Terry Semel, may be slowly bringing in his old guard to help turn around the Web portal. The buzz among entertainment execs is that former Warner Bros. Online exec Jim Moloshok was spotted on a plane bound for San Jose. Moloshok works for Windsor Digital, Semel's Net project, and was responsible for launching Entertaindom.

    Moloshok, who couldn't be reached for comment, apparently isn't the only entertainment blood Semel may be interested in. Former Allen & Co. banker Toby Coppel and former Entertaindom executive Jeff Weiner have begun working for Semel in unspecified positions.

    Who might be next from the WB?

    "The Yahoo old guard ought to be watching their backs," said one wag. "Elmer Fudd might sneaking up right behind them."

    Larry Ellison works the runway
    As Moloshok touched down in San Jose, he may have been hit by rumors flying in those parts that ace pilot and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is about to emerge victorious in his dogfight with the city over its aircraft curfew.

    Ellison in January sued San Jose, contending that its curfew, which applies only to aircraft weighing more than 75,000 pounds, violates federal law.

    Ellison's attorney, Ed Davis, cast a jaundiced eye on the rumors.

    "That would be overstating it," said Davis, who expects a ruling any time in the next few months. "The judge made some comments at a couple of the hearings we've had that would imply a favorable outlook from our point of view, but I learned a long time ago that what a judge says at a hearing doesn't necessarily mean that's how they'll rule."

    Ellison told U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel that his Gulfstream 5, tipping the scales at more than 90,000 pounds, is actually quieter than most aircraft that meet the limit. The suit alleges that the San Jose ordinance violates federal law prohibiting air rules that are discriminatory, arbitrary or unreasonable.

    Should Ellison lose, the equal rights of large aircraft would be dealt a grave blow.

    Harm sustained to large egos will be considered collateral damage. There's no noise limit for rumors, so send me some of yours.