Forget about the Oscar race. In every Hollywood Christmas party conversation, it’s impossible not to talk about the Sony Hack, or “Hack Attack,” to borrow the title of an upcoming George Clooney Sony film that may or may not get made.
For one thing, the management team that was going to back the film –from the one person in Hollywood who seems to understand the New Transparency– is unlikely to survive. The fallout is too great.
Sony chairman Amy Pascal was already fragile, belatedly trying to pull back on years of overspending and letting go of key marketing and publicity scapegoats– who might have proved helpful during this crisis. She also proved vulnerable to the hackers due to her love of expressing herself freely via email.
And now Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton is in the crosshairs too (see CNN video below), as he put a public face on the unprecedented cyber-attack–described by John McCain on CNN as cyber-warfare— that brought a once-mighty conglomerate to its knees. Was Sony wrong to capitulate to its cyber-attackers, the Guardians of Peace, which our government has definitely identified as North Korea, who demanded: “We want everything related to the movie, including its trailers, as well as its full version, down from any website hosting them immediately”? The studio complied.
When Sony decided to pull back the wide Christmas release of “The Interview,” they may not have had a choice. But several theaters were willing to do a more limited slow rollout. And exhibitors are furious that Sony passed the buck by blaming them for not being able to release the movie. President Barack Obama told the press that he would have called the theater owners! I can’t help imagining him on the phone with Regal Cinema’s CEO: “Hello? Amy Miles? Barack Obama here. About that movie ‘The Interview’?”
But many are wondering why Sony can’t use their own companies, Crackle and PlayStation, to release the movie, even if others are reluctant to place themselves at risk for another hack. Many streaming sites, from BitTorrent to VHX, are clamoring to release the picture, which Sony execs insist will be released sooner rather than later. Just not now, at Christmas, while the studio is still trying to get off its knees and return to business as usual.
How surreal that emails posted by the cyber-terrorists showed Pascal and producer Scott Rudin making fun of Barack Obama–which may have spurred him to later criticize the studio for not checking with him about whether or not to hold back the release of “The Interview.” That put Lynton in the unfortunate position, when he went on his news rounds the next day, of having to argue with POTUS.
The real problem is that Sony CEO Kaz Hirai, who in an email dating back to June was revealed to be “very much concerned about this film,” seems to have been more aware of the real risks of making a film about a named sitting world leader –especially of a rogue state like North Korea–than Lynton and Pascal. They thought they were making a comedy, but North Korea didn’t want anyone making fun of their godlike leader. Hirai was the one who asked –in often risible emails with filmmaker-star Seth Rogen–to pull back the blowing up of the head of Kim Jong Un, while Pascal deferred to her talent.
While the emails open a window on how business is conducted in Hollywood–which operates in its own bubble, apart from the harsh realities of the world–they also offer a picture of a dysfunctional studio. While Sony Japan and Sony America never did communicate very well, now Lynton, Pascal and even Hirai are at risk of losing their jobs.
How long can that corporate marriage possibly last? The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman wrote. The intense rivalries between the Japanese and China and the U.S. may also lie behind this costly “cyber-vandalism” as Obama called it. Did someone want to lower the value of Sony so they could acquire it? It may be time for Sony to let go of the studio. While it has been faring better than some of its other struggling divisions, Sony Pictures lost money in its last quarter.
Here’s what we can take away from this debacle.
1. If you want to satirize a world leader, fictionalize them.
In “Duck Soup,” the Marx brothers sang “Hail Fredonia!” Peter Sellers ran the tiny nation Grand Fenwick in “The Mouse that Roared.” Even musical “Into the Woods” director Rob Marshall, when asked on NPR about the Hack Attack, gently suggested that the filmmakers should never have identified their assassination target as a real person.
2. If you work for a major corporation, don’t use emails to negotiate with talent.
No one writes emails or uses them with as much fluency as Amy Pascal. But it was a mistake. Ex-Paramount chief Sherry Lansing instinctively avoided email and writing anything down that she could say over the phone. She was right.
3. Adopt the New Transparency.
Operate in the light. Do the right thing. And don’t put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see published on the front page of The New York Times. Hollywood’s New Year’s Resolution: Use the telephone.