Future of Sony's Amy Pascal questioned after hacked email revelations

Sony's Amy Pascal is under pressure for insensitive comments in leaked emails

Sony Pictures Entertainment co-Chairman Amy Pascal, one of the most powerful executives in Hollywood, has come under intensifying pressure after the release of confidential emails in which she made racially insensitive remarks about President Obama.

In a November 2013 email exchange, Pascal asked producer Scott Rudin what she should ask Obama at "this stupid Jeffrey breakfast," referring to an event hosted by DreamWorks Animation's Jeffrey Katzenberg.

"Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?" she wrote, referring to the film about a freed slave. Later in the exchange, Pascal wondered if she should ask Obama if he liked two other African American-focused films, "The Butler" and "Think Like a Man."

The White House declined to comment on the remarks by Pascal, who is a major Democratic contributor. Both Pascal and Rudin went into damage control on Thursday.

"The content of my emails to Scott were insensitive and inappropriate but are not an accurate reflection of who I am," Pascal said in a statement. "Although this was a private communication that was stolen, I accept full responsibility for what I wrote and apologize to everyone who was offended."

Rudin also issued an apology. Both he and Pascal declined to be interviewed.

The disclosure of the exchange is the latest in a series of blows to Sony Pictures Entertainment — and Pascal — since a cyberattack on the studio was made public Nov. 24. A group called Guardians of Peace has claimed responsibility and called on Sony to stop its scheduled Dec. 25 release of "The Interview," a comedy depicting a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

While the source of the breach is still under investigation, Pascal and other Sony executives have been criticized for green-lighting a film centered on killing a real-life political leader. The emails released by the hackers include discussions between Pascal and Sony Corp. in Tokyo in which changes to soften the film's ending were explored. Some of the tweaks were made.

Now, between the controversy over the film and the release of the emails, observers are questioning Pascal's future with the studio.

"Typically, somebody senior's head rolls when there is a hacking scandal, and the embarrassing email disclosures just help determine who that is going to be in this case," said Laura Martin, senior media analyst for Needham & Co. "If she becomes the weak link because people believe she can't actually work in the business, it's just, OK, now we know who it is going to be. None of it is particularly fair, but if somebody's head has to roll, they are looking for the path of least resistance."

In particular, the emails reflect poorly on Pascal's judgment, said Ashley McCown, president of crisis public relations company Solomon McCown & Co.

"This is troubling on every level," McCown said. "She says this is not who she is, but then why did she say it in the first place? There is no humor to be found in that at all.

"The board of Sony is going to have to take a hard look at this situation and make some tough choices," she said.

Issues of race have long bedeviled Hollywood, which has been criticized for not giving minorities enough opportunities for work, and for not doing enough to represent African Americans, Latinos and others in films and television shows.

Darnell Hunt, a sociology professor at UCLA, said he was not surprised by the nature of the emails.

"This is where we are in Hollywood," said Hunt, who is director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, which produces the annual Hollywood Diversity Report. "We have a diversity problem … the fact that you can have these perceptions that are made jokingly give us a peek into the underlying culture of the industry."

Also on Thursday, civil rights activist Al Sharpton condemned Pascal's comments about Obama and called on her to meet with black leaders to "deal with the gravity of her statements as well as the inequality of how they do business."

This isn't the first time in recent years that Pascal's status at Sony has been scrutinized.

Late last year, it was an open question in Hollywood as to whether Pascal's job was in jeopardy after the studio suffered through a poor summer at the box office and an activist shareholder criticized the company's management.

Although Pascal's boss, Michael Lynton, is the chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures, she is known to be its top creative decision maker and is held accountable when projects disappoint. But Pascal quieted the talk earlier this year after Sony put out a handful of movies in late 2013 — including "American Hustle" and "Captain Phillips" — that were critical and commercial successes. Lynton declined to comment.

The confidential emails, reviewed by The Times, show that Sony executives long were monitoring developments related to North Korea.

In June, an executive sent Pascal, Lynton and others a news report about the country's testing of short-range projectiles a day after it warned of retaliation over "The Interview." Later, Sony executives debated how the film's ending should be handled, and altered a scene involving Kim Jong Un to make it less gory, emails show.

Sony Corp. Chief Executive Kazuo Hirai became involved in the discussions. Pascal sent him an email in September noting changes to the climactic final scene.

"There is no face melting, less fire in the hair, fewer embers on the face, and the head explosion has been considerably obscured by the fire, as well as darkened to look less like flesh," she wrote.

North Korea has officially denied involvement in the hack, though it praised the group that took responsibility for the digital assault.

Pascal's emails, many laced with profanity, reveal an executive who is at different times defiant, emotional and introspective. In an already infamous exchange with Rudin over Sony's now-scuttled Steve Jobs biopic, Pascal fought with the sharp-elbowed producer over the foundering project, which the studio ultimately lost to Universal Pictures.

Some of Pascal's email exchanges about actors and filmmakers could damage her strong standing in Hollywood's creative community.

In a November email to Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group President Doug Belgrad, Pascal complained about a handful of projects being developed by the studio, and some of the filmmakers involved in them.

The messages have rankled some actors, including Kevin Hart and Zoe Saldana, who have vented about the emails on social media.

"It's the way a part of Hollywood conducts itself. They don't like talent," said actor Mark Ruffalo, who is mentioned in several emails released by the hackers. "There's been a huge disrespect to what the talent brings."

Not all of Pascal's emails are intense or business-related. In some exchanges with family members and colleagues, the executive is warm and compassionate.

Pascal in November urged Columbia Pictures President of Production Hannah Minghella not to come in to the office after feeling sick during her pregnancy.

"I think you should start working from home," Pascal wrote. "Your baby is coming soon. I always get more done at home. I forbid you to do anything that will get in the way of you or your baby's health."

But those messages are being obscured by the more salacious ones.

"It's a cautionary tale to everyone in Hollywood who puts things like this in email," Martin said. "It's not just North Korea — they should assume it could get discovered in litigation or by hackers for fun."

The cyberbreach, which could cost Sony Pictures tens of millions of dollars, has humiliated the studio. Among the leaks have been the Social Security numbers of thousands of current and former employees, the purported million-dollar salaries of 17 studio executives and code names used by celebrities when they travel. Five films, including the upcoming musical "Annie," were also leaked online.

The studio's business affairs executives have spent the last few days on the phone with managers and agents of the top stars in an effort to soothe jagged nerves — but also to alert them of the possibility of further embarrassing disclosures, according to a Sony insider.

Employees, meanwhile, have spent hours changing bank passwords, canceling credit cards and enrolling in fraud protection services. Workers who describe themselves as shell-shocked have been most concerned about the leak of their Social Security numbers — which cannot be changed.

Twitter: @DanielNMiller

Times staff writers Saba Hamedy, Ryan Faughnder, Amy Kaufman, Richard Verrier, Meg James, Kathleen Hennessey, Armand Emamdjomeh and Anthony Pesce contributed to this report.

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