Sony hack reveals Hollywood’s bitter civil war
Nobody ever plunked down 14 bucks to see a movie executive on screen.
That may be an odd takeaway from the Sony hacking scandal that has been wracking the company and the film studio it owns, Sony Pictures Entertainment. But the relative invisibility of these executives vis-a-vis their talent — and what looks like the executives’ anger about this — are among the biggest revelations in the document dumps.
What the most incendiary emails unveil is that Hollywood, for all its outward intramural amity, is a community deeply divided between those who are ostensibly in power — the studio execs and producers — and those who really hold power — the stars and major directors. All that “kiss-kiss” stuff between them belies the dysfunction and deep resentment the servants harbor against their social betters. Even though those resentful servants are moguls who make millions of dollars.
This is not the way most observers have interpreted the Sony hack. They have called it an object lesson in the fragility of privacy in the age of the Internet. Some, like writer Aaron Sorkin, have seen the publication of the emails by the general press as an abuse of the First Amendment and lashed the media for being “morally treasonous,” in a New York Times op-ed article.
These are worthy issues. But these emails are also important culturally. They are like an X-ray of the industry that is one of the most important forces in creating our images and values. That X-ray says a lot about Hollywood — and America.
First, Hollywood. Almost from its inception Hollywood fought a civil war. This was between the financiers headquartered back East, who doled out the money for production, versus the creative folks in the West, who actually supervised the making of the movies. The suits in New York thought studio heads spendthrift and foolish. The movie executives thought the moneymen tight-fisted and uncreative. You could say Hollywood was built on a fault line between commerce and creativity. It still is.
Now come the Sony emails to enlarge the picture and change it. Amid all the financial details — Jennifer Lawrence made less money from American Hustle than her male co-stars and the medical records and the gossip about who wants to star in the all-female sequel to Ghostbusters — are those now notorious emails in which executives gripe about the “talent,” the ironically contemptuous term that executives have always applied to stars, directors and writers.
Producer Scott Rudin calls Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat” because she has the audacity to want director David Fincher for her bio-pic of Cleopatra when Rudin wants him for his bio-pic of Steve Jobs. Even though Rudin insults Fincher as “difficult,” which, he writes, is like saying “Hitler may be anti-Semitic!!!” Comedian Kevin Hart, writes one Sony exec, is a “greedy whore.” Then there were the emails ridiculing Adam Sandler’s recent films or the email calling Leonardo DiCaprio “despicable,” or the one claiming that Sorkin is “broke.” (Sorkin refuted that in his op-ed article.)
The upshot is that the execs, who are so dependent on talent, appear to envy and resent it — even hate it — and the emails are the smoking gun of that hostility. Another irony is that Sony production head Amy Pascal has long been known for her good relationships with the talent.
This is, in some measure, a result of how the industry has changed since the Golden Age of the studios in the 1930s and 1940s. MGM head Louis B. Mayer, to cite one example, may have had a certain disdain for talent — but he didn’t envy or resent them. In the Hollywood of that era, he was bigger and more powerful than any star. He was the king.
But by the late 1940s, the studio system was crumbling. And ever since the power of studio heads has declined while that of the stars and other talent has risen. That put executives in the talent-acquisition business.
It did something else: It made them subservient to talent. Only now are we seeing just how angry executives are about their predicament.
Which brings us to what these snarky emails say about the changes in America. Mayer wasn’t resentful not only because he was the master of talent rather than its servant, but also because he was never in competition with his talent. That’s because there were no social media, nor was there the idea of media status — gaining celebrity by getting written and talked about. The execs’ resentment isn’t just a function of star power. It is a function of star visibility.
We live in a society where public status is the grail, a society in which, at certain levels, one is measured by the media attention one receives, which puts everyone in competition with everyone else. You ever wonder about those endless lists of “The Most Powerful People in Hollywood”?
This also means that studio execs, desperate for attention — one of Pascal’s emails gushes over a story on her by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd — are also in competition with talent.
It is a competition they cannot possibly win, and they know it. The execs are the losers in the great American celebrity sweepstakes. From these emails, they appear to be sore losers.
So what we see is not just a squabble over privacy. What we see is a nation in thrall to status, and an industry deeply divided by it.
It’s civil war. And this time, the emails show, it’s personal.
PHOTO (TOP): Actress and honoree Jodie Foster (R) poses with co-chairperson of Sony Pictures Entertainment Amy Pascal at the 16th annual Women in Entertainment breakfast in Beverly Hills, California, December 4, 2007. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Producer Harvey Weinstein (L) speaks with Jennifer Lawrence during a commercial break at the 20th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, California, January 18, 2014 REUTERS/Mike Blake
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Matt Damon poses with Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment and Chairman of SPE’s Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, at the world premiere of “Elysium” in Los Angeles, California, August 7, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio boss Louis B. Mayer and Joan Crawford. WIKIPEDIA/Commons