Illicit Achive: Sony Hack as Access for Media Industry Studies

Curator's Note

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.




Emily—Fascinating historical connection between the battling stars and executives revealed by the leak and similar professional antagonisms of the classical era that we’ve only been able to learn about decades later through archive access. And Cleopatra, the bridge between the generations! Something that stands out to me in the comparison between Sony’s leak and memos from the studio era being released through controlled means is the gossip frenzy that erupted around the former. Sony and other industry folks (Aaron Sworkin) blamed the media’s coverage of the leak for encouraging the hackers and unnecessarily inflaming the situation. However, the media blitz adds a meta-commentary to the materials that offers its own valuable insights into industry culture. On the other hand, there is something peaceful in considering primary sources that have not been widely assessed—and certainly not by mass exposure or consumption. As the researcher you get an opportunity to look almost objectively at the information. I suppose it’s the difference of being the lonely researcher in a room with boxes of files vs. being on the sofa in the middle of the night watching the event/sources unfold on the Internet with millions of others.

Emily -- I'm interested to see what future scholars produce based on this material and imagine that some of this will already be on display at SCMS later this month. Having said that, I'm curious if you (and others) imagine any resistance from academic (or trade) publishers for reproducing some of this material since Sony Pictures attorneys were quick to threaten a lawsuit against anyone using resources procured through the hack? This "illicit archive" might turn out to be problematic depending on which information is used.

That's an interesting point, Ross, about potential resistance from publishers, which overlaps with issues related to fair use and questions about what other materials scholars can use in their work (both in the classroom and in their publications). Maya pointed out that Sony blamed the media coverage for encouraging the hack and inflaming the situation, but I think their critique was off (as were so many things in their response to this hack!) in that there was more intra-industry excitement about and interest in these materials than there was among the general public.

Thank you Maya, Ross, and Jen for your thought provoking comments. Ross, in response to your question about the threat of legal action from Sony to journalists (and potentially any scholarly presses who publish research utilizing this material), I will reiterate the point I made in my response to Maya's piece. If Sony did sue a publisher based on this material, it has the potential to have the opposite effect and make this material legally accessible in court records and documentation. Then again, if they settled out of court, which tends to happen with more contemporary Hollywood lawsuits, the evidence and documentation will not be accessible. Plus, would Sony really sue the trade publications like Variety and Hollywood Reporter that reported on the hack, whereas they were not the hackers themselves that broke the law? Would it be responsible journalism (and we could extend that to scholarship) to ignore the revelations uncovered in this leaked material, when it is out there and exposed?

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