Hollywood reconciles with Mark Zuckerberg

by Danielle Berrin, Staff Writer The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old CEO of Facebook, took on a Warholian idea – that anybody could be famous – and created a Web site that allows users to cast themselves as stars of their own lives.

Never again would the line between what is public and what is private be clearly understood; by allowing private citizens to reinvent themselves as public figures, Facebook signaled the end of privacy. Suddenly, a person’s private “status” – whether eating, drinking or coughing – became a news item.

More explicit privacy settings would follow, allowing Facebook users some forms of protection. But Facebook’s founder didn’t get off so easily. The Hollywood release of “The Social Network” harbingered the end of Zuckerberg’s private life.

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When the film first hit theaters last September, its complex but unflattering portrait of Zuckerberg raised immediate alarm. The media went wild speculating about the potential harm to the young-genius-billionaire’s image.

The film’s tagline, “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” is enough to haunt anyone who is image-conscious. But for the 26-year-old mogul at the helm of what may be the world’s most famous company – and a social networking site to boot – the film’s portrayal threatened to send Zuckerberg into fits of madness.

Oh what a difference an awards season makes.

In the five months since opening, the film has lapped up box office success and critical acclaim, and, along the way, Zuckerberg’s image has undergone elaborate transformation. The once Machiavellian Harvard student has become the philanthropic humanitarian.

It was hard to see that one coming: Last August, a report on the entertainment news site TheWrap.com depicted the young CEO on the verge of a meltdown. Writing about the AllThingsD conference on digital media, where Zuckerberg was a presenter, TheWrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman wrote that the hoodie-wearing Zuckerberg seemed “nervous,” and that he “stammered” during his presentation and “sweated” a lot. Not exactly the picture of Facebook’s calculated cool.

Unlike with Facebook, Zuckerberg quickly learned that in real media, there’s no option to “untag” yourself from an unattractive photo. And for a while he seemed to be buckling under the scrutiny.

At the conference in Sun Valley, he complained to Waxman: “I started Facebook to improve the world, and make it a more transparent place. This movie portrays me as someone who built Facebook so I could meet girls.”

Imagine that.

Next, an article in The New York Times detailed the fraught negotiations between Facebook and the filmmakers. “Behind the scenes,” The Times reported, “Mr. Zuckerberg and his colleagues have been locked in a tense standoff with the filmmakers, who portray Facebook as founded on a series of betrayals…”

Facebook officials reportedly spent months lobbying the studio (Sony) and producer Scott Rudin to amend the script. To no avail, they tried to convince the filmmakers to rely on an authorized account of Facebook’s founding by New York Times writer David Kirkpatrick, rather than Ben Mezrich’s more lurid “The Accidental Billionaires.” According to The Times, Facebook “fretted for months” over how to respond to their PR crisis, deciding in the end to simply ignore it.

But on Zuckerberg, the strain showed. For a time, he publicly promised not to see the film. Then, the week the film was released, he appeared on “Oprah” to announce a $100 million gift to the Newark public school system – and the media queen cannily referred to the film as “unauthorized.”

A healthy dose of anxiety is hardly novel for a Jew, whose ancestral predilections for neuroses are legion (at least in Woody Allen films), but barely pushing 30, while running the world’s most popular social networking site under fishbowl scrutiny, Zuckerberg was contending with massive – and massively unique – pressures to perform.

In an ironic twist, the Julius Caesar of the Internet, presiding over an illusory empire of 540 million, seemed to want nothing more than privacy.

When the film was released, as much attention was paid to the portrayal of Zuckerberg (Was is it biographical? Fictional?) as to the film’s artistic and technical merits. Much was made of the filmmaking ethics that permitted Hollywood to create a fictional character out of a real one – especially a living person, still merely in his 20s, who would likely bear an international imprint built on writer Aaron Sorkin’s rendering.

“It’s a new kind of license to turn a real-life 26-year-old whose most life-changing decisions were made as a teenager into an incarnation of Silicon Valley killer instinct, undergrad dorkdom, impatient brilliance, and middle-class Jewish-American aspiration fighting the Wasp Establishment,” Mark Harris wrote in New York magazine about the film. “Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is a young man pounding on the door, driven by his desire to get in” to places of power and acceptance. But also, “away from the Jewish fraternity that symbolizes his lack of access to the inner circle.”

Fast forward to last weekend, when Zuckerberg made a surprise cameo alongside Jesse Eisenberg (the Oscar-nominated actor who plays him) on “Saturday Night Live.” The largely symbolic act served as a kind of “burying the hatchet” between Zuckerberg and Hollywood, and drew deliberate and overt distinctions between the “real” Zuckerberg and the fictional one.

“Why can’t I go in there? I’m the real Mark Zuckerberg!” Zuckerberg says to a producer while on camera backstage. On an overhead monitor, Zuckerberg was watching himself being impersonated by “SNL” actor Andy Samberg, who had joined Eisenberg onstage. “That guy’s like my evil twin!”

When Zuckerberg finally appeared out front, Eisenberg delicately asked, “Did you ever end up seeing the film? ‘The…Social…Network’?”

“Yeah, I did,” Zuckerberg said.

“And, uh, what did you think?”

“It was interesting.”

Interesting, indeed. What began as a negative spin on Zuckerberg and his haughty conquer-the-world attitude had transformed into the most celebratory and useful publicity both Zuckerberg and his company have seen since Facebook’s founding. And to think, all it took was a little Oscar buzz.

OK, a lot of Oscar buzz. The past few months of award-winning and Oscar campaigning have done more than cement the genius of the film’s cast and creators. Because of the spotlight cast on Zuckerberg, the young entrepreneur has had a chance to prove he isn’t the socially inept anti-hero portrayed by Eisenberg, but, rather, a benevolent titan of the digital age.

First, there was that strategically timed $100 million gift to Newark public schools, which Zuckerberg followed up, three months later, by signing onto The Giving Pledge, an initiative for billionaires created by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage the uber-wealthy to commit half their net worth to charity. And along the way, it’s been revealed that Zuckerberg is no awkward, inexperienced male: He has a serious live-in girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, whom he met at Harvard.

Even Aaron Sorkin, the writer who started it all, offered a kind of mea culpa to Zuckerberg during his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes: “I want to say to Mark Zuckerberg tonight,” Sorkin said at the Jan. 16 ceremony, “Rooney Mara’s character makes a prediction at the beginning of the movie. She was wrong. You turned out to be a great entrepreneur, a visionary and an incredible altruist.”