UPDATED Thursday, 5:30 AM, adding more context and information below.
EXCLUSIVE: How long is Sony Pictures going to silently endure this full-on assault, in which cyber-terrorists are using media outlets to deliver salvos of hacked private e-mails to embarrass and sabotage the regime of Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton?
Wednesday night was particularly bad. Tabloid-style reports hit both trades, focusing on hacked documents about a racially tinged e-mail exchange between Sony Pictures Entertainment chief Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin. In a lame attempt at humor, they speculated what films President Barack Obama might like, as they discussed an Obama fundraiser held by Jeffrey Katzenberg in 2013. All of the offerings they came up with were black-themed films.
Is it possible their track records for quality, thoughtful films and collaborations with top talent can be set aside and that Rudin and Pascal could be tarred and defined by momentary lapses and poor attempts at humor that paint them as being racially insensitive, in e-mails meant to be private? How long before Sony’s unwillingness to hit back or challenge this onslaught of private documents — the result of a criminal act being investigated by the FBI — topples this regime?
That’s the conversation I am hearing most often in Hollywood right now, even before this latest slice of salaciousness was served up as important news in this ongoing, choreographed campaign against the studio. I’ve heard tonight that Pascal is devastated by the release of the memos and how they were amplified by the trades in her backyard. How can someone justify or defend private e-mails that can be taken out of context and served up by hackers specifically to destroy the rep of one of the most accomplished movie executives of the last 20 years? I don’t know, but I think she and Sony had better soon figure out a way to convey they won’t sit quietly and be defined by this nastiness, and they had better do it fast.
People in town are wondering how long Pascal and the studio can, under the guise of not dignifying the damage caused by these stolen documents, continue to weather an unprecedented media assault without saying anything? Tonight’s stories followed earlier reports about e-mails from Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper about UTA agent Jeremy Zimmer’s ask for extra money beyond his $3 million paycheck if client Kevin Hart was going to tap his vast social media following to promote a film. In the missives, Culpepper writes, “I’m not saying he’s a whore, but he’s a whore.”
Now, Culpepper’s salty wit is something he wears on his sleeve, and I understand he and Hart spoke and laughed it off. The relationship they have isn’t reflected in the leaked reports, and so the report, especially when taken out of context, seems like a vitally important revelation. Guess what? It isn’t. The fact is, it’s not uncommon for them to talk to each other like that, or for Culpepper to talk to most people in Hollywood like that. Hart, a core reason for Screen Gems’ success, isn’t going anywhere, from what I’m reliably told.
The Pascal-Rudin exchange included a testy string of emails where the two go at it over twists and turns in the Rudin-produced Steve Jobs movie that eventually moved from Sony to Universal, with Danny Boyle directing Michael Fassbender as the Apple visionary. Tonight’s Obama dispatch is wince-worthy and seems difficult to defend. It was also a private conversation that should never have been made public. They’re not elected officials determining policy — the banter reflects nothing more than sophomoric humor regarding someone to whom they have provided massive and enduring support. Where’s the scandal?
Sony to this point hasn’t defended itself at all, even when it was clear these e-mails were going to be served up by computer hackers who’ve used selected journalistic outlets to do its dirty work in carrying out each successive strike. It’s hard to blame any media outlet for not questioning the higher purpose of taking dishy, salacious documents and playing them for all they’re worth, even if they are covering old ground. Most of the document reveals have come from muckraking websites, but even the Wall Street Journal got into the act this week, divulging how Sony tried to better exploit Sony’s Spider-Man brand, culled from the stolen e-mails.
You wonder if WSJ‘s willingness to build marginally interesting stories out of hacked data is related to Sony signing on to make George Clooney’s adaptation of the Nick Davies expose Hack Attack, which vilifies the phone-tapping scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids (Murdoch owns WSJ). No matter the reason, the result of all this has been a shock and awe-caliber assault on a Sony regime that was coming to the end of a rough year filled with restructuring and layoffs.
The heat won’t let up anytime soon as the studio prepares for Thursday’s LA premiere of the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview, the comedy about the attempt by bumbling TV reporters to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Deadline’s David Robb reported today that Sony has bolstered security and TMZ reported that the studio won’t offer up Rogen and Franco to the media.
Whether anybody speaks or not, the press viewing the movie will be buzzing and surely writing about how the film ends. North Korea has been speculated as being complicit in the hacking of Sony on November 24. If that is true, the movie’s ending won’t help Sony. Widespread buzz is that things don’t end well for the North Korean leader in the film — I’ve confirmed that Sony has toned down an ending different from the one audiences will see tonight, for the version of the film that will be seen in theaters overseas — but neither finale is flattering to Kim. This back and forth over the film’s ending surfaced, naturally, in yet another set of stolen e-mail correspondence with Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai.
The list of awful things that have happened to Sony because of this breach — upcoming movies were leaked to the web, along with personal data and Social Security numbers of employees — will potentially create financial damage and lawsuits for Sony that will be felt for years to come. All because hackers, possibly with the assistance of inside help, found a way in through the back door to wreak unprecedented havoc that includes the Hollywood creative community wondering if their data and private conversations will be secure if they do business with the studio.
I imagine that if Sony’s production team had it back, they would either have insisted that the North Korean leader be fictionalized in The Interview or they would have passed on making the film. The comedy wouldn’t be more or less funny with a caricature instead of the standing leader of a nuclear-capable country. I bet they wish they’d never made the film.
But is this the time for such second-guessing and hand-wringing? Studios all over town are watching every development in what is turning out to be the biggest film story of 2014. They are relieved it isn’t their e-mails being made public, and you’d better believe they’re reviewing their IT systems to batten the hatches against breaches. Sony is re-building its security systems from the ground up.
However, Sony executives like Pascal, Lynton and others need to decide whether they are going to continue to absorb these attacks silently in hopes they subside (they won’t), or find a way to speak up and make it clear they will not be defined by cyber-terrorists (they should). It’s clear that restraint is out the window, and that each and every breach will be served up to fuel news reports that will be reported as important developments, and set the conversation in Hollywood and the media every day.
Sony sat silently several years ago while its worthy film Zero Dark Thirty was pummeled by politicians for the depiction of torture scenes in the hunt for Bin Laden. Those torture practices are back in the news, but the studio didn’t help its movie’s Oscar chances by sitting silent. The stakes are much higher here and it is possible this isn’t just Sony’s problem. Any studio in town could be going through the same thing right now.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.