With films like The Social Network and Moneyball receiving so much critical praise and financial success, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long to see a documentary film focused on technology based startup businesses and youthful ingenuity. Ctrl+Alt+Compete attempts to take a stab at the newly defined sub-genre with varying results, focusing on a group of five CEO’s hoping to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.
Ctrl+Alt+Compete follows a pretty simple formula, focusing on a handful of young CEO’s navigating the many challenges they face in keeping their companies afloat and ultimately turning a profit. Beyond the featured subjects, a number of seasoned entrepreneurs share their insights and perspectives on success and failure in the world of business. In the first third of the film we’re introduced to two CEO’s taking part in some sort of pitching forum in hopes to gain some financial support. One is Josh Sookman, founder and chief executive officer of Guardly, an emergency communication application for smartphones. He’s joined by Joanne Lang, CEO of Aboutone.com, an “online family management system”. We watch as the two rehearse their speeches and manage the technical details of their presentations, knowing that a single mistake or slip up could mean a financial lost opportunity. This section reminded me of tournament style docs of the past (Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, Word Play, etc.) and was probably the most accessible sequence of the film. There was a point though when I was hoping for something a little more directly related to business beyond the examination of ones nerves during a public presentation.
Just when things were starting to feel a little bit like an episode of The Apprentice, the film switches gears and introduces us to a new group of folks. The most interesting of the bunch are the guys behind Supergiant Games, an indie video game company consisting of ex-EA employees. I myself used to work in the game industry and I’ve always thought there’s a documentary to be made about the production of video games; more specifically, indie games. In the film we see the crew attending GDC (Game Developers Conference) with their game Bastion, which was up for awards in audio and art. The fact that these guys split off form a much bigger company to do their own thing is interesting, especially considering the competition in the game world. With so many big budget franchise titles drawing most of the attention, it seems like a challenge trying to get your tiny indie game noticed. On the other hand, with so many big and expensive games taking up so much time and money in the industry and from consumers, these smaller games might be the sort of relief that the industry needs. It’s an interesting topic that’s touched on in the film but not really explored in depth (which is fine, as this isn’t a documentary about gaming).
Ctrl+Alt+Compete was produced by Microsoft, which immediately had me wondering what sort of benefit or conflict of interest may exist within the content. Maybe somebody smarter than me could draw some sort of connection, but I thought there was a level of transparency that wasn’t really troubling or problematic. It seems as though the film was just an opportunity to showcase the sort of young, inventive minds that Microsoft has benefited from over the years. By the end of the film it’s quite clear that building a startup business like the ones featured in the film is extremely difficult and requires a lot of knowledge and dedication. Unfortunately, we don’t really spend enough time with the subjects to fully appreciate the work put into their business and the long term results of their efforts. I think the main problem with the film is the fact that it plays out in two extremes, unable to decide if it’s a film for everybody or a film for business majors. Just when it feels like things might be overly simplified, the subject matter shifts towards more complex, dry material that some might find boring. Because of this, Ctrl+Alt+Compete can feel very didactic, almost like an industrial video at times. Aesthetically, it’s well made and quite glossy, but again, it has moments where it feels like you’re watching a commercial rather than a film. However, the look does seem to fit the subject matter well.
I think business majors and like minded entrepreneurs would get something out of Ctrl+Alt+Compete that the average viewer may miss. Anybody who fully understands the challenges faced by these young CEO’s should appreciate this look at what it takes to make it in business in the internet-age. For the rest of us, it’s an inside look at the people behind some of our favourite companies and technologies, giving us an idea of the hard work and perseverance that goes in to finding that perfect business model and building it into something successful. I’m not sure the film is for everyone, but there’s definitely an audience out there for Ctrl+Alt+Compete. — Jay C.