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The Elizabeth Holmes saga is far from over

Silicon Valley is ignoring the Elizabeth Holmes story. Hollywood isn’t.

Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of the blood-testing startup Theranos, was found guilty of fraud after a monthslong trial. Above, Holmes and her family leave the courthouse after a jury found her guilty on four counts in San Jose, California, on January 3.
Dai Sugano/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Elizabeth Holmes’s trial is finally over, but that doesn’t mean her time in the spotlight is finished. After months of arguments and seven days of deliberation, jurors convicted the former Theranos CEO on four of 11 counts of conspiracy and fraud. Now, as Holmes awaits her final sentence, Hollywood is producing its own versions of the former CEO’s story.

Some say the Holmes trial represents an indictment of Silicon Valley’s “fake it till you make it” approach, and indeed, criminal cases — let alone guilty verdicts — against tech leaders are a rare occurrence. Upcoming productions from Hulu and Apple, however, may soon deliver the real reckoning. These dramatic retellings of the Theranos saga could define how the world comes to understand Holmes and the Silicon Valley culture that gave rise to her.

On the legal front, Holmes’s fate is not yet sealed. The jury found the 37-year-old former CEO guilty on one count of conspiracy to defraud investors and three counts of wire fraud. But while the jurors found Holmes not guilty on one count of conspiracy to defraud patients and three counts of wire fraud related to patients, they remained deadlocked on three other fraud counts related to misleading investors. Presiding Judge Edward Davila plans to declare a mistrial for those undecided charges.

Federal prosecutors will also have to decide whether to pursue a new trial for those three unresolved charges, and the defense will likely appeal the guilty verdicts. Holmes faces fines of up to $250,000 for each count (plus restitution) and a maximum of 20 years in prison. It will likely take months for the judge to decide on Holmes’s sentence, and there is no mandatory minimum sentence. So it’s possible Holmes won’t go to prison at all.

But inevitably, Holmes will face the court of public opinion.

As the tech industry continues its yearslong effort to treat Holmes as an aberration, the entertainment business is just getting started. The projects from Hulu and Apple — Amanda Seyfried and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively, will play Holmes — plan to deliver a referendum on what went wrong at Theranos, and stand to shape how the public remembers Holmes and her company in ways her camera-free trial never could.

The Elizabeth Holmes story goes to Hollywood

Silicon Valley cast off Elizabeth Holmes not long after news broke about the Theranos technology not working. Tech industry leaders then argued for years that the blood-testing startup did not follow their approach. They pointed out that Theranos was largely funded by private investors, not major venture capital firms, and that the company didn’t include prominent biotech experts on its board.

This argument doesn’t entirely hold up. Holmes did have support from some prominent tech investors, including venture capitalist Don Lucas and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. Often dressing in a uniform black turtleneck and embracing her status as a college dropout-turned-founder, Holmes also welcomed comparison to Silicon Valley royalty, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Even throughout the trial, Holmes’s lawyers tried to defend Theranos’s misleading claims about its blood-testing technology as par for the course in the startup world.

“Holmes’s alleged fraud was really a symptom of much broader root causes that promoted her actions, and she’s not alone,” Len Sherman, a business professor at Columbia and former Accenture senior partner, told Recode. “That just happens to be the extreme case that got to trial and is garnering — hopefully — a lot of attention.”

Silicon Valley might try to draw attention away from the Theranos story, but Hollywood is putting a spotlight on it. Since the Wall Street Journal first sounded the alarm on the accuracy of the company’s blood tests in 2015, several documentaries have investigated what went wrong at Theranos. These include the Alex Gibney-directed HBO documentary The Inventor and ABC’s investigative podcast The Dropout.

Big-budget streaming series and feature films are next. Hulu is releasing a new miniseries based on the ABC podcast in March — it’s also called The Dropout — and has already released images of Seyfried as Holmes. And though it has not announced a release date, Apple recently confirmed it will be backing and distributing a Theranos movie directed by Adam McKay and starring Jennifer Lawrence. It’s called Bad Blood, and is based on the eponymous book by John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal investigative reporter who first reported on Theranos’s faulty technology.

Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom at Elizabeth Holmes’s trial, which means these documentaries, TV series, and films will continue to be the primary way people watch (rather than read about) Theranos. But these treatments will also become a chance for the public to decide what it thinks about Holmes and her company, according to Dan Birman, a documentary director and professor at the University of Southern California.

“When we get into a major story like this, it’s a constant sorting process that will happen over time,” Birman said. “That’s what history does.”

Theranos isn’t the only disgraced tech company getting the streaming treatment. Next month, Showtime will release a series called Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Uber’s co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick. Apple is similarly working on a limited series called WeCrashed about the rise and fall of WeWork, in which Jared Leto will star as the company’s former CEO, Adam Neumann, and Anne Hathaway will play his wife, Rebekah Neumann.

You might even say that taking shots at Silicon Valley founders is becoming a bit of a Hollywood tradition. These projects follow in the footsteps of the 2010 blockbuster about the founding of Facebook, The Social Network, with Jesse Eisenberg playing a sinister Mark Zuckerberg. There were also two films about Steve Jobs: the 2015 drama written by Sorkin, starring Michael Fassbender as the Apple founder, and the 2013 biopic, starring Ashton Kutcher. None of these movies offer flattering portrayals of the tech titans.

In the meantime, there are even more Theranos courtroom scenes that have yet to be written. A separate trial that centers on Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, Theranos’s former chief technology officer and Holmes’s ex-boyfriend, is scheduled to begin on February 15. Balwani is also charged with defrauding patients and investors, but his case was separated from Holmes’s because her lawyers expected to accuse him of abuse as part of her defense. His upcoming case is a reminder that the story of Theranos never seems to end.