The industry fall out from the November 2014 Sony hack has culminated in the recent departure of co-chairman at Sony Pictures, Amy Pascal. Much of the sensational material was leaked from her contentious email correspondences with producer Scott Rudin, including Rudin’s slamming Angelina Jolie as a “minimally talented spoiled brat” over her Cleopatra remake (which harkens back to the exorbitant 1963 production that starred screen diva Elizabeth Taylor) to safeguard his own Steve Jobs biopic (which has moved to Universal) to their racially insensitive joking about President Obama’s favorite African American film. These exchanges also reveal complicated industry attitudes towards gender and race in Hollywood deal-making, particularly with wage parity between the male and female stars (with Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, who earned considerably less than costars Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper for American Hustle) and with African-American talent (with Sony exec Clint Culpepper calling Kevin Hart “a whore” for asking for additional compensation for promoting his film on social media).
While the hack is clearly an invasion of privacy, it is also a vital resource for scholars because contemporary Hollywood reveals so little about its internal operations and business practices. The major studios do not make their files accessible, which in turn, makes contemporary media industry studies very difficult. Hence, these leaked correspondences unveil what transpires behind closed doors.
These revelations echo historical entanglements of Hollywood in the 1930s-40s that are equally telling in regard to power and politics in the film industry. Some of these played out in sanctioned sources like fan and trade magazines and the press (think Bette Davis’ legal battles with Warner Bros. and Lena Horne’s struggle at MGM to eschew African American stereotypes). Many more also waged in private through inter-office memos between studio executives and talent that are available in donated archival collections, mainly the USC Warner Bros. Archives and the David O. Selznick collections at the Harry Ransom Center. These memos never made headlines in their day because they were confidential. Nonetheless, this archival access is considered legitimate research for historians. We might conceptualize the Sony hacked emails as an illicit archive, but one that enables us to make informed assessments about current Hollywood business dynamics as well as industry attitudes about gender and race that would otherwise remain clandestine.