A Cold Day In Culver City: Why the Sony Hack Further Complicates Future Archival Access for Scholars

Curator's Note

One of the most reported stories of the week is that Hillary Clinton used a private email server during her time as Secretary of State, a decision that prevented the National Archives from automatically preserving her emails. (In his rebuke, Lindsay Graham, who sits on the Senate Subcommittee for Privacy, Technology and the Law, proudly admitted that he has never sent an email.) Clinton and Graham might know something that Amy Pascal and others at Sony discovered the hard way—in cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream.

As the Sony Hack unfurled in 2014, I was struck by two issues that hit close to home: 1) As a former Sony employee, how much of my personal information had been dumped online? 2) More importantly, would this utterly convince media companies to never donate their archives (and especially correspondence) for public review?

As media scholars know all too well, access to contemporary memoranda, contracts, and other sensitive information is horrendously difficult to come by. Scanning special collections libraries around the country, one can find studio and network records, but nearly all of these materials predate 1970.

Conglomeration has continued to cannibalize smaller companies and their archives and has hidden large chunks of media history behind the moat of attorneys and corporate communications. Providing scholars with privileged access to company records is not an industry priority or proclivity. And, to be honest, why would it be? Meanwhile, the revelations that were exposed during the Sony Hack will only make the digital and physical walls around this material that much higher.

Still, there is one possible reason media companies might want to partner with libraries and archives. Part of the feeding frenzy that took place came from the lack of access to this information and Hollywood’s notorious secrecy over budgets, salaries, and internal and external deals and decision-making. 

Perhaps to lessen the impact of future leaks, what if media companies began partnering with libraries and archives to allow scholars (and journalists) access to “de-classified” materials just as some government agencies do by releasing vetted records through the National Archives and Records Administration? By doing so, media companies would be able to contribute to the scholarship that encourages interest in their current and back catalogs while protecting themselves through an extensive legal review of all “de-classified” documents released to archives. With some information already publicly available, illegal data dumps might be far less newsworthy.


I love that idea of partnerships between libraries, archives, and media companies to allow journalists and scholars access to "de-classified" materials! I am afraid that efforts to make that happen could encounter a very basic problem: many people in the industry still don't quite understand what we do, and unfortunately, that leads to a great amount of mistrust. They are afraid that we will paint them in a bad light or that we claim we are using their information for one thing when we are in fact doing something else with it. I think your post highlights the need for increased cooperation between academics and industry and perhaps this is something that the SCMS committee on Media Archives should take up: an increased effort to communicate with studios and other media companies about the importance and value of archiving their materials.

Jen -- Your point about mistrust is certainly true. And, I should point out, that if film industry executives are looking for a friendly library, they could certainly start with AMPAS' Margaret Herrick Library. There, of course, trust doesn't even have to be established. We all talk about the problem of access and I would love to see SCMS committees address this issue. I'm certainly happy to help bridge those gaps.

Jen and Ross--this is an excellent prospect! Countering this perceived "mistrust" between the industry and film and media historians has the potential to bolster partnerships and engender more scholarship on media industries, past and present. I also think the Warner Bros. Archives at USC is a good model to look to along with the Herrick. Warner Bros. and USC jointly fund the archive and while WB retains the intellectual copyright of the material, USC owns the physical material and is responsible for its care. [ Some shameless self-promotion--for those interested in this collaboration and the history of the WBA, see my article "That's Not All Folks: Excavating the Warner Bros. Archives" published in the Moving Image last spring). If the studios can see that their legacy can be better preserved and understood through scholarship, it might help this "de-classified" archival collaborations between the studios and non-profit institutions like libraries and universities. Also collaborations with studio preservation and home video departments is another partnership that could open research avenues (Sony itself has a vibrant restoration program and has been a good steward of the Columbia classic films that it now owns).

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