Fallout from Sony hack may alter how Hollywood conducts business
The internal emails leaked in a massive computer hack at Sony Pictures have captivated an entertainment industry that’s all ears for scandalous revelations. Beyond the dirty laundry, however, the release of inside information is expected to force significant changes in the way freewheeling Hollywood does business.
Major film companies have spent the last few weeks examining how to best shore up their computer systems since the attack was made public last month. Everyone from studio chiefs to junior-level executives has been put on warning to be more guarded with what they put in emails.
“It will push a lot of communications ‘underground’ ... vastly less text messages and emails and much more face-to-face conversations,” said consultant Peter Sealey, a former president of marketing and distribution for Columbia Pictures. “Hollywood will look a lot like the protocols of people in the witness protection system. This will modify behavior.”
Film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon called it “a wake-up call to the entire industry.”
Indeed, aside from the cottage industry of tell-all books, few can recall anything to expose Hollywood on the scale of the Sony hack.
Thousands of emails going back three years show the extent to which Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chair Amy Pascal got involved with decisions big and small. One moment she’s approving blockbuster film budgets, the next fielding inquiries about whether Adam Sandler’s bulldog can hitch a ride on the corporate jet.
Her emails to Sony Corp. bosses in Tokyo take on a respectful and careful tone. But others between colleagues and some of the studio’s stars paint an unvarnished portrait of the petty slights, biting evaluations, bravado and sharp elbows that belie the glamour of making movies.
Many of the emails show how studio chiefs invest considerable energy handling the egos of stars and producers.
In an October exchange, “Mad About You” star and co-creator Paul Reiser asked Sony Pictures television head Steve Mosko for help in getting the 1990s hit show issued on DVD.
This brings all the workings of the studio into the public, and it’s not a pretty picture. The studios have to realize there is really no such thing as privacy.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, film historian
“People kept asking me why they couldn’t get this season or that season,” Reiser wrote of the sitcom distributed by Sony. Mosko replied: “Working hard to make it happen.”
Joel McHale, whose NBC show “Community” was produced by the studio, asked Mosko’s assistant in May for a discount on his purchase of a Sony television set. The assistant asked Mosko whether it was OK “to go ahead” with the purchase of the $6,000 television for the actor. Mosko said yes.
In other cases, Pascal does her share of stroking the egos of the talent.
In a November 2013 email exchange with actress Jennifer Lawrence, the executive praised the “The Hunger Games” star for her performance in the second installment of the film’s series. “Just saw catching fire and your performance was enthralling,” she wrote. Pascal also compared Lawrence’s work in the film to Steve McQueen’s performance in the 1968 crime thriller “Bullitt.”
There were also travel requests, such as a December 2013 email asking whether Sandler’s “small quiet bulldog” could accompany the actor and his assistant on a flight. Another request came from Bradley Cooper asking whether he could use the corporate jet.
The FBI is investigating the hack, which was made public Nov. 24. A group calling itself Guardians of Peace has claimed responsibility, demanding that Sony block the Dec. 25 release of “The Interview,” a comedy depicting a fictional assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Along with emails, hackers have released data on the salaries of top executives and Social Security numbers of thousands of employees. Aside from being a public relations disaster, the breach, analysts estimate, could cost Sony Pictures tens of millions of dollars, including the cost of beefing up its computer systems to prevent more attacks.
On Saturday, a message claiming to be from the hackers was posted online with links to the seventh round of leaked Sony data. “We are preparing for you a Christmas gift,” the purported hackers said in the message. “The gift will surely give you much more pleasure and put Sony Pictures into the worst state.”
A spokesman for Sony Pictures declined to comment, except to express disappointment that The Times “has decided to cherry-pick from private email correspondence and other stolen information in order to paint a skewed picture of life inside a Hollywood studio.”
Pascal issued an apology Thursday over the stolen emails that had caused offense.
Hollywood will look a lot like the protocols of people in the witness protection system. This will modify behavior.
Peter Sealey, former president of marketing and distribution, Columbia Pictures
The email missives reveal studios’ relentless attempts to control public perception, especially managing the media.
Pascal and Sony’s former head of communications, Charlie Sipkins, discussed in January how to handle questions from Los Angeles Times reporter Daniel Miller, who was examining Pascal’s leadership after a few box-office disappointments. “I am digging in and working him over,” Sipkins told Pascal.
Other emails showed executives debating how to jockey for a top position in the Hollywood Reporter’s annual Women in Entertainment power list. Sipkins questioned the wisdom of spending time campaigning after the studio had been the subject of a “snotty article.”
Pascal also expressed frustration about the exercise, which culminates with a star-studded breakfast event at which the list is unveiled.
“I don’t want to go to the breakfast I just want to be in top 3 like I always am and don’t wanna look petty,” Pascal wrote.
“You can’t tell single person that I’m seeing the column before its printed … its not done … no p.r. people … or anyone should know,” Pascal’s spouse, former New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub, tells Pascal in one email.
Dowd said in a statement released Friday that she did not show Weinraub the column before it was published.
Pascal’s emails to herself also demonstrate the rigors of running a studio.
She makes lists to remind herself of people to call, appointments to make and decisions that need to be made. These bullet-pointed emails, rattling off reminders in rapid-fire succession, can sometimes go on for four or five pages.
In one lengthy To-Do list in September, Pascal wrote: “CLOSE LEO DEAL,” “CALL SANDLER CHECK IN,” and “GET ANSWER FROM MARK WHALBERG,” misspelling “Wahlberg.” Another list she made a few months earlier includes reminders to “put 23 jump into development” and “we need to greenlight little house, steve jobs, concussion, uncharted.”
A series of exchanges about the next James Bond film, “Spectre,” revealed that it could be one of the most expensive films ever made. The film’s production budget was detailed in an email as more than $300 million, which caused concern for Pascal, producer Barbara Broccoli, and MGM Studios president Jonathan Glickman.
“This is not about ‘nickel and diming’ the production,” Glickman wrote in an email to Pascal and others in discussing cuts, including trimming the number of trains used in a key fight scene.
The emails also show Pascal and other executives keeping a keen eye on box office returns after their movies open. In one email chain, executives and stars connected to “22 Jump Street” congratulated themselves after a strong $57-million opening weekend. “Truly insane,” actor Jonah Hill wrote.
For the Record
Dec. 13, 9:32 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said “22 Jump Street” took in $25 million in its opening weekend. The correct figure is $57 million.
In some respects, the emails show that Hollywood is similar to other hard-charging arenas.
“Hollywood is like any political campaign, athletic locker room or business board room,” said Martin Kaplan, a former Disney executive and the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “Among intimates, there is a lot of alpha behavior — taunting, boasting and one-upping each other.”
Times staff writers Saba Hamedy, Joe Bel Bruno and Richard Verrier contributed to this report.
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