5:00am PT by Austin Siegemund-Broka
Latest Hollywood Cyber-Whodunnit: Who's Hacking 'Wolf of Wall Street' Financiers (and Why?)
This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It's not exactly the Sony hack, but another breach of online security is the latest cyber-whodunit to stump Hollywood. On July 29, Red Granite Pictures, an independent film backer with credits including The Wolf of Wall Street and the upcoming Will Ferrell comedy Daddy's Home, filed a lawsuit in California federal court with disturbing echoes of the year's biggest industry scandal. The company claims someone "unlawfully and without permission obtained access to Plaintiff's computer systems," gathered contact information and sent harassing emails to Red Granite employees and others who have done business with the company.
Some allegations are stranger. In the same complaint, Red Granite claims an executive at a company that advises Red Granite on operations and finances was "being physically surveilled" and has received repeated phone calls from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. cautioning against working with the company.
One question emerges immediately in light of the Sony hack: What exactly have the hackers got? Red Granite, which has sued unknown defendants for causes including stalking and computer fraud, specifies only that email addresses and lists of producers and others were lifted from company electronic databases, not the more sensitive information (such as medical records and salaries) involved in the Sony hack, which led former Sony employees to file a series of class action lawsuits against the studio.
"We believe that Red Granite's security measures prevented any email content or confidential financial information from being compromised and that the harassment the company has been experiencing does not represent any danger to its business or creative partners," says Matthew Schwartz, a company attorney. But Red Granite has been working with its long-time crisis public-relations firm Sitrick and Co. (known for representing Jeff Berg in the downfall of Resolution, Michael Vick and others), which suggests more sensitive correspondence or information might be in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, who's hacking Red Granite and why? The company will subpoena Yahoo and Verizon in hope of figuring out from where the emails and calls are coming. But as with the Sony hack, one possibility has an international angle.
Red Granite co-founder Riza Aziz's stepfather is Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak. "The campaign of harassment aimed at Red Granite and its employees appears to be the work of political opponents of the Malaysian prime minister who are trying to hurt him by attacking his stepson," Schwartz tells THR. It's unclear what Malaysian political interests would want with the company ("I have no idea what's in the mind of the people harassing Red Granite," says Schwartz). During recent months, however, the Malaysian prime minister has come under investigation and pressure to resign over allegations he directed $700 million from the state fund 1MDB into his personal bank accounts. Following a July story in The Wall Street Journal connecting Najib to the fund's estimated $11 billion in debt, Malaysian police raided 1MDB headquarters and removed documents and other information.
Since Red Granite launched at Cannes in 2011, Aziz and co-founder Joey McFarland repeatedly have denied their company operates with Malaysian money. They previously specified they are backed by "a group of investors, mainly from the Middle East and Asia," and in a 2014 story in The New York Times they identified their chief investor as Abu Dhabi businessman Mohamed Ahmed Badawy Al-Husseiny.
Still, the question persists whether Red Granite gets funding from Aziz's country. A racketeering claim from two exec producers on the Red Granite-funded Dumb and Dumber To in April 2014 stated the company "is funded with monies that include proceeds from offenses against a foreign nation that involve bribery of public officials, or misappropriation, theft or embezzlement of public funds by a public official"; Red Granite denied this, and the suit was settled. Months earlier, the company threatened a lawsuit when journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown speculated on SarawakReport — her blog critical of the Malaysian government — that Red Granite's money comes from Aziz's family. Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, in a November email, wrote, "It took the crazy Malaysians to do the Wall Street movie with Leo."
Further suggesting a connection is Jho Low, a flamboyant financier (he made headlines in 2010 partying with Paris Hilton) and Aziz friend who received "special thanks" in the Wolf of Wall Street credits. Low reportedly knows Najib and advised him on the creation of 1MDB in 2009 to develop his country's industries and capital city. Low reportedly has gone missing following the Malaysian government's inquiry into his work with 1MDB. Says a Red Granite rep flatly, "RGP does not have any kind of business relationship with Jho Low."
Could it be Red Granite's funding comes (even in part) from the prime minister via Low, and the hack is a response to the new charges of 1MDB misuse? The company says no. "There's no Malaysian money in the company, and there's certainly no money that has anything to do with 1MDB or any of that stuff," says Schwartz. "The best I can tell, this is just someone who is trying to hurt everyone around the prime minister."