The Real Lesson of the Sony Hack: Good Movies Are Hard to Make!

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I’m glad that film producer Scott Rudin and Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal apologized for a series of questionable emails about President Obama, and I’m also glad that they haven’t apologized for a separate email exchange about the movie Jobs — not publicly, at least, though who knows what mea culpas, Edible Arrangements, and pricey Lamborghinis are being proffered behind the scenes right now. Both of these exchanges (and many more) were revealed as part of a massive hack of Sony corporate files (along with budgets, full cuts of films, and all manner of personal employee information). Make no mistake: This is a criminal act, not some sort of Hollywood version of Wikileaks; there’s no larger public interest served in these files coming to light. Despite the giddy voyeuristic shiver one might get from sifting through other people’s emails, no one deserves to have private exchanges exposed in this way and no hacker who does so should be anything but condemned. That said …

So far, most of what’s been revealed is neither salacious nor particularly enlightening — rather, it’s mostly the kind of random harping and sniping (and bartering and buttering-up) that would likely be found in any data-dump of any big corporation, except that these come sprinkled with bold-faced names. The Jobs exchange, though, between Rudin and Pascal, is notable — and fascinating in an entirely different way. The websites that have posted excerpts of the Jobs conversation have typically done so in a spirit of “Oh, the incivility!” — as if we previously imagined that Hollywood executives politely negotiated movie deals over tea-time cucumber sandwiches. But to me, what’s compelling here is the chance to eavesdrop as two very smart people at the top of their field knock heads with absolute candor. Who wouldn’t love to read a similar exchange between Supreme Court justices? Or Ivy League academics? Or executives at BP? In this case, though, what we have is not so much gossip as primary evidence of the hard, exasperating, finicky, frustrating work of getting good movies made.

There’s a common, and somewhat understandable, assumption about Hollywood: That it’s run by egomaniacs and idiots. After all: Transformers! And also a bunch of crappy other movies! The egomaniac part may be pretty self-evident and needs no leaked computer files for corroboration. As to the idiot part, though — it’s lazy and, clearly, dead wrong. Art and business coexist intrinsically in Hollywood in a way they don’t in nearly any other endeavor — people elsewhere may be making art, or they may be making money, but they’re generally not making both. Finding the right director for a script is an artistic dilemma; finding the right one for a script that’s going to cost $180 million of other people’s money is a financial one. In both cases, the stakes are huge and the factors complex. I’m sure there are plenty of equally salty email exchanges flying back and forth on Wall Street, and at least those people don’t have to worry about whether their derivatives are also going to lack onscreen chemistry. And these aren’t two middling executives arguing about whether their reboot of Manimal needs more cleavage. It’s a Steve Jobs biopic, which is hardly anyone’s idea of a tentpole franchise.

In that context, it’s fascinating to watch Amy Pascal at work — she’s widely considered to be the most powerful woman in Hollywood, though apparently that title is very hotly contested. And it makes sense that Scott Rudin should find himself in the middle of this, too, since he’s long embodied a kind of paradox: As a filmmaker, he has unimpeachable taste, but as a boss, he’s legendarily fearsome. (A Wall Street Journal article about working for him was headlined “Boss-Zilla!”) As a moviegoer, my tendency is to believe that any producer who can get films like No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood or The Social Network off the ground is entitled to a kind of artistic clemency — especially given that we civilians never have to (or ever get to) see those notorious behind-the-scenes excesses of passion. Or, at least, we never did until now.

Rudin calling Angelina Jolie “a minimally talented spoiled brat” is naturally going to lead every blog post about the exchange, but I’m more interested in sentiments like “we will end up losing Fincher on the one we want him to do and will be stuck with shoving him onto a movie with no script that, underneath it all, you know in your heart and your brain should never be made. The whole exchange plays out partly like a chess match between Rudin and Pascal and partly like a two-handed game of artistic ego-Jenga, in which mishandling one piece will cause the whole thing to collapse. (Which Jobs sort of did or, at least, wound up at Universal, not Sony.) Reading these details, it’s hard not to indulge in a little Fantasy Movie Studio roleplaying. Would you cast Christian Bale or Michael Fassbender (or Tom Cruise) as Steve Jobs? Hire David Fincher or Danny Boyle? Acquiesce to Angelina Jolie or can the whole endeavor?

People with intimate knowledge of Hollywood will no doubt here assert that there are countless examples of thoughtful, well-mannered, even-tempered menschs who also make fantastic and profitable films. There’s even a movie about one of them, called Supermensch. Truth be told, I’ve had occasion to meet many such people myself. (Though who knows what secret tantrums lurk in the depths of their "sent" folders.) Maybe one day their civil, genteel email exchanges will also come to light — though probably not, because BO-RING. I feel for the people whose emails are being exposed — Hollywood, as the cliché goes, is all about relationships, and I’m sure as we speak, bridges are being mended, flippant comments are being walked back, and awkward hugs are awkwardly taking place. But the next time you watch an interesting movie, don’t think about whether it was (as Rudin called Jolie’s Cleopatra) an “ego bath.” Think about just how many angry, impassioned, salty, candid emails it took to get it onscreen.