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Crashing the casting call for 94110, a show about San Francisco’s hottest zip code

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Men on a Mission

Last month fliers began appearing on certain blocks of San Francisco advertising open auditions for a television pilot about "six leading technology executives living, learning, and loving together in San Francisco’s Mission District." The shlocky concept was named 94110 after the neighborhood's zip code, and was roundly ridiculed online. Nonetheless, nearly 100 hopefuls showed up for the casting call this weekend, which was held at SFAQ, a dinged-up, lived-in little art gallery in the Tenderloin.

For much of the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, they sat on folding chairs in the gallery, waiting for a chance to screen test for roles such as the socially awkward engineer ("likes punk rock, addicted to vaping"), the wantrepreneur who relies on "alcohol-fueled bro-downs for brainstorming sessions," and the venture capitalist "with lots of likes and followers," who "puts out good vibes and gets good returns."

The creators of 94110 have been tight-lipped about their plans, so if I wanted to find out more, my only choice was to try out. I auditioned for the venture capitalist role, briefly toying with the idea of performing under the alias Ellen Pao. On my way to the gallery, I got an iMessage out of the blue from Scott Vermeire, the show’s director of marketing and communications, who introduced himself only as "Scott from 94110." We agreed to meet at the auditions where he turned out to be a dead ringer for Sal from Mad Men.

"Name a new media or technological tool . . . and it probably came out of that area code."

"94110 is probably the hottest zip code in America right now," Vermeire insisted, leaning against the building as we stood on the sidewalk outside. "Name a new media or technological tool that's of any import in the last couple years and it probably came out of that area code."

Vermeire is vastly overstating 94110's importance to the world of tech. I should know — I live in the zip code. Before I saw the flier, I'd never heard anyone invoke those five digits as a status symbol. But Vermeire has a vested interest in a vision of San Francisco where the brightest minds in tech work hard — and play harder — all while sharing the same aspirational address.

The Real World: Gentrification

In truth, the Mission has become as synonymous with Bay Area class tension as Google’s shuttle buses, which roll through the neighborhood at regular intervals. Walk by at the right hour, and you can watch tech workers sheepishly shuffle onboard. The influx of hipster bars to entertain these workers and garish condos to house them is rapidly displacing working class residents and a deeply-established Latino community that goes back generations. I should know, I'm gentrifying the Mission myself.

In the midst of upheaval and evictions, 94110 conjured fears that it would come across as glibly as The Real World: Gentrification or Survivor: Rise of the Hacker Hostel. (The panic was exacerbated by pink fliers that recently surfaced advertising "a docu-series for a major American broadcaster" about the real girlfriends of Silicon Valley.) Vermeire, however, assured me that 94110 would be a sophisticated fictional take, combining "adult drama, tech, and San Francisco."

The reason HBO’s Silicon Valley is set in Silicon Valley is because that’s where corporate tech campuses are located. In contrast, the Mission is more where those campus dwellers live and like to go out at night. I’m guessing that's why the producers didn't pick 94103, home to the headquarters of Uber, Twitter, Airbnb, and Pinterest. Or 94107, home to the SOMA tech takeover and popular daytime meeting spots like Small Foods, the Creamery, Caffe Centro, and Darwin Cafe.

94110 is blossoming under all that shade

To date, the residents of 94110 (at least the ones who spend their time on social media) have not appreciated the attention, rolling their eyes over the premise. I asked Vermeire how the producers felt about the negative response from the neighbors. "I feel great," he said, without missing a beat. "I think it's all buzz. I’ve seen buzz at launch like this, I've never seen it this early in development." In other words, the iffy idea, which still doesn’t have a distribution deal and seems to be operating on a very limited budget, is blossoming under all that shade.

The creators have yet to reveal their identities, perhaps to stave off those haters or more likely because they have nothing in the way of name recognition. "There's a handful of things I’m not at liberty to say and that's one of them," was all Vermeire would offer. He did, however, spill some new info about distribution. "We've gotten really excited about the idea of partnering with a Silicon Valley blog or a Silicon Valley media outlet . . . maybe like The Verge."

You will not be viewing 94110 on TheVerge.com, but Vermeire emphasized that they’re down for whatever. "We've gone at this project with an open-doorway mind — an open-kimono mind — and so far that's only brought us good fortune."

"We've gone at this project with an open-doorway mind."

One clue about the show’s worldview is at the top of the screen test guidelines, where it states there will be no casting preference toward age, race, or gender. "Only requirements are that you're over 18, non-Union, and live in the Bay Area. We're not flying anyone in for this," Vermeire told me.

That’s savvy marketing. But reflecting the diversity of the Mission isn’t about who gets cast as a tech executive, it’s the fact that all these homies livin’ and lovin’ in 94110 work in tech. That’s not what you see if you walk down Mission Street. Some of the roles are also less open to interpretation, like the lead described as: "B R O in lifestyle and mindset." In an even shrewder bit of propaganda, the producers have framed their focus on techies as an unwillingness to pander to their critics. A producer who wouldn’t give his last name told Mission Local: "This is not social realism, we don’t want to to talk down to anyone, there’s not going to be any condescending populistic messages in it (the show)." 94110 seems to think it can stop being polite and start getting real.

Getting in character

To that end, the character sketches were fairly finely drawn, even though the cast sounds like the makings of the most annoying Burning Man camp ever. The monologues accurately reflect the kind of ambition, anxiety, competitiveness, and utterly meaningless startup jargon that pervades San Francisco’s tech scene. The most unrealistic archetype was a supporting character who works for a number of on-demand apps and tries to rationalize making only $12/hour. The script for that role said: "Of course, I fucking love the freedom of the 1099 economy." The spate of class action lawsuits against Uber, Handy, and Postmates offer a different perspective on the labor side of the sharing economy.

Pretending to be an asshole is empowering

Even after seeing the turnout for auditions and lights and cameras that greeted them, I still think it's possible that 94110 is a piece of performance art that got out of hand. Vermeire seemed to present himself as a bit of a techie, but his personal website says he's an artist from Oakland. I asked him to name some film projects the production company had been involved in, but Vermeire only mentioned his own stint at a group called Thunderball Media that was developing apps for Google Glass. "Of course Google wimped out, bailed on Google Glass, we lost our business model, game over," he said. "That's where [the show] hit home with me. I've seen success, I've seen quite a bit of success, but I've also seen failure."

Failure had come up in my audition as well. When my name was called, I walked into a tiny white room with two men and one woman seated behind a folding table. The instructions warned that the panel "may ask some interview-style questions." I expected them to inquire about me, not the fictional investor I was playing, but I found it easier than expected to stay in character. One could say I #crushedit.

What work-life balance?

With the number of venture capital funds growing, how do you pick a winner, they asked. Pattern-matching, I said. What’s your relationship with failure? Badge of courage, I wear it proudly even if the newcomers don’t. What do you think of the Mission, is it for work or play? There's no work-life balance in the tech industry because we love what we do. What do you do when someone annoys you? Get up and leave. What if you see them out again? Nod politely. It's not personal, it's just business and my time is too valuable to waste.

Pretending you're a rich, entitled asshole is very empowering. What's more, fielding questions when you're supposed to sound like an expert helped me "grok" the propensity for meaningless business babble. Sometimes you need to say "pivot" just to buy yourself time to think.

Before I exited, they zoomed in close and asked me to read the VC monologue again:

"Yeah, everyone is different. I’m not even talking about backgrounds or your place in society. That’s why I love this neighborhood— all the changing faces and good energy. These new waves of, uh, new people, uh, is a huge thing. The area can always regenerate. There is a fresh rate of money coming in, fresh ways of support, fresh food— isn’t that a great thing? Look, if I’m willing and ready to pay more for a coffee in the morning, then by all means, charge more for your coffee. I’m not alone in this. Don’t act like this is a radical idea. This is what pays the bills."

Vermeire told me that the producers wanted to "cast from a native geography" within the zip code, which is why they put up fliers targeting "micro-hoods" like The Quad and Mission Gulch. "That was absolutely intentional. We didn’t hire some flier-ing service who accidentally put all those fliers in the Mission," Vermeire said with a laugh. Last year, SFist wrote about the invention of The Quad as a microhood and the realtor who named it. "It will make you want to rip off your eyelids," they wrote, but "it’s important to note that she’s not entirely off the mark."