Charles Ferguson — tech strategy, Web toolmaker, documentary film maker

I was about to delete some press release spam this morning when I caught the news that Charles Ferguson is releasing a documentary on Iraq at Sundance.

My first contact with Charles was in the mid-80s when I was a business reporter at PC Week and I believe he was a faculty member at MIT. I continued to use him a source because he definitely belonged to the smartest man in the room club, and was refreshingly blunt about his point of view of the computer industry — which at the time was only beginning to be revolutionized by the PC.

His book, with Charles Morris, Computer Wars: The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global Technology, was and still is, the definitive explanation of the tectonic shifts from the mainframe to mini- to microcomputing architectures, but is also, in my opinion, the best discussion of the impact of standards on creating immense power and wealth in the tech industry. In short, if you want to fully understand the implications of the Microsoft-Intel standard – Wintel — you need to read this book.

I relied on Ferguson when I was writing about the decline of IBM, the decline of DEC, and the other computing behemoths in the early 90s.

When I shifted my reporting focus from the PC industry to the internet in 91, I began writing more and more about early information retrieval tools and page description languages such as SGML, Veronica, WAIS, Gopher, etc.. Along the way, I stumbled upon the new that Ferguson had launched a company in Cambridge, Vermeer, so we arranged a demo at his offices near Fresh Pond.

There I saw FrontPage — the first truly WYSIWIG web page/web site builder — I knew Charles had a hit, even before launching, and for the next few weeks I negotiated with him and my editors to get the exclusive into Forbes.

Charles sold Vermeer to Microsoft for over $100 million, pocketed a nice piece of change himself, and then sort of vanished for a little while, re-emerging with a new book in 1998, High Stakes, No Prisoners, a piercing account of his travails as CEO of Vermeer, his battles with evil venture capitalists, and his efforts to get the highest price possible for the company at a time when the battles between Netscape and Microsoft for dominance of the emerging internet were very real and very vicious.

His MIT Tech Review article on Google was brilliant.

I pinged Charles a couple years ago while gathering string for a book on technology standards. He had written an excellent polemic against the telecommunications industry, The Broadband Problem, while working as a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institute.

Now, this morning, I learn that Charles has made a film about the early days of the Iraq occupation, and was filming in the streets of Baghdad with a personal security force of heavily armed Kurds.

From the press release:

“Policy wonk-turned-rookie filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight,” making its debut this month as one of 16 films in the documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is among several docus this year about the war on terrorism.

Ferguson gained access to experienced players on the ground in Iraq, including then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Gen. Jay Garner; Barbara Bodine; coordinator for central Iraq in charge of Baghdad; and Col. Paul Hughes, who explains with all-too-vivid candor how Iraqi administrator L. Paul Bremer came into Iraq and swiftly made enormous decisions with devastating consequences as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. “No End” clearly lays out what happened in 2003 and ’04 from the inside out — at a time when the new, Democrat-controlled Congress is taking a hard look at the U.S.’ Iraq policy.

The film was fully financed by Ferguson, who earned his doctorate in foreign affairs at MIT and later sold his Silicon Valley software company, Vermeer Technologies, to Microsoft for about $133 million. His 1999 tell-all book, “High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars,” is angry, analytic and piercingly frank.

So is “No End,” which debuts Monday in Park City and is being sold by ubiquitous attorney John Sloss. On Tuesday morning, several participants in the film will take part in a panel. Garner will participate via satellite, joining Bodine and the articulate, Harvard-educated Marine Lt. Seth Moulton.

Other Iraq-themed films at this year’s festival include “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” an expose of the 2003 abuses at the notorious Iraqi prison, from HBO’s documentary unit headed Sheila Nevins, directed by Rory Kennedy; the Danish film “Enemies of Happiness,” which digs into conditions in Afghanistan; and, on the dramatic side of the ledger and one of the most eagerly anticipated Sundance unveilings, James C. Strouse’s “Grace Is Gone,” starring John Cusack as a parent grieving for his wife, killed in the Iraq War. It remains to be seen what the market is for these films.
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None of the recent crop of theatrically released Iraq-related docus has performed as strongly at the boxoffice as Michael Moore’s rousingly emotional and partisan anti-establishment 2004 diatribe, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which won the Festival de Cannes’ Palme d’Or and is the highest-grossing docu ever at $119 million domestically. None of the more conventional war docus that have followed — “Iraq in Fragments,” “The Ground Truth,” “The Road to Guantanamo,” “Why We Fight” and “The War Tapes” — has cracked the $1 million mark.

But “No End” could do better than that because it boasts the same assets as 2005’s Oscar-nominated Sundance docu “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” which grossed more than $4 million: dogged reporting, penetrating insight and a strong, angry point of view. It is not coincidental that “Enron” screenwriter-director Alex Gibney helped Ferguson on “No End” as executive producer.

Ferguson had the sense to realize that his friends who were telling him not to make the film were right about one thing: He needed help from someone more experienced. An admirer of “Enron,” he turned to Gibney, who is something of a documentary brand name with such films as “Lightning in a Bottle” and “The Fifties.”

“It was the weirdest experience,” says Gibney, who got a call from Ferguson out of the blue in late 2005. “He had never made a film before. He’d invented a Web construction program and sold it for a zillion dollars. He was a political science professor. He knew a lot of people in the foreign-policy arena. He’d done some writing. He wanted to do a film about the occupation of Iraq. He came to New York, and we discussed it. The subject was important. ‘Would you help me?’ I gingerly went forward: ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ ”

Gibney — while working on his own Afghanistan prison expose, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” and a Hunter S. Thompson docu — taught filmmaking 101 to Ferguson, offering support and guidance every step along the way, especially when it came time to edit a five-hour rough cut. But “it’s Charles’ film,” he says. “I’d focus him, helped him hire the cinematographer. He was trying to do too many things. I helped him with clarity. He was a quick learner. He had a lot of resources.”

Although Ferguson is reluctant to discuss it, he sank almost $2 million into the movie. “I tried to make it clear, factual: Here’s what happened. I tried to keep out theorizing and grand statements. I want the film to be widely seen by a lot of people so they can come to understand what happened there,” he says.

Much of that money went into a month of filming in Iraq, which was extremely dangerous. The fledgling filmmaker spent about $7,000 a day on an armored Mercedes and a large Kurdish security detail armed with machine guns. He went into the streets incognito, never for more than 20 minutes, never to the same place twice. Ferguson gained extraordinary access to people who were close to the action and willing to say astonishing things.”

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Charles Ferguson — tech strategy, Web toolmaker, documentary film maker”

  1. Sounds like an interesting guy. If you’re interested in first person perspective on the early Iraq war and its effect on our soldiers, read Chasing Ghosts by Paul Rieckoff. The guy was a Nat’l Guard soldier on the ground very early on, and goes into detail from early occupation through his return from duty & consequent public actions over his experience in Iraq. The guy is a very engaging writer, it reads like an immersing fiction novel.

  2. “High stakes, no prisoners” is one of my favorite books. Can’t wait to see the documentary, hopefully it will be issued on DVD. Actually it’s already listed on Netflix (as not yet released) and in my Queue.

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