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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Nearly one year after one of the worst cyber attacks in corporate history, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton spoke candidly about the fallout from the epic hack.
In a wide-ranging discussion Thursday evening with Harvard Business Review editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius at Lynton’s alma mater Harvard University, the studio chief remained steadfast that the hack could have happened to any studio or corporation, and that there was little he could have done to prevent it. “Not a single company could withstand that kind of attack,” Lynton told the crowd of about 200, mostly students, gathered at the university’s Memorial Church.
He also opened up for the first time about why co-chairman Amy Pascal stepped down from her top post.
“Ultimately, it was [a decision] made by Amy and myself and others at Sony corporate that it was a good time to part company,” he said. “It was as much about the performance of the film unit as [anything else]. Her contract was up in March.”
In fact, Lynton flatly denied any suggestion that Pascal was ousted due to her leaked emails that stoked widespread criticism for being racially insensitive.
“It didn’t have anything to do with emails,” he said of Pascal, who stepped down in February. “Any connection between the two is invalid.”
The hack, which was first discovered on Nov. 24, stands as the worst data and intellectual property breach ever to rock Hollywood. The personal information and Social Security numbers of some 47,000 past and present staffers was posted publicly as well as film budgets, profitability figures and thousands of emails from Lynton and other top executives. Five finished movies, including the Brad Pitt World War II film Fury and the musical remake Annie, were pirated by the hackers and widely disseminated on file-sharing sites, costing the studio millions in lost box-office revenue.
The emails were a popular point of discussion, with Lynton asking Ignatius if he has ever written emails criticizing Harvard faculty, drawing laughter from the crowd. Still, Ignatius asked if there has been any blowback from top stars like Angelina Jolie, who was referred to as a “minimally talented spoiled brat” in one leaked email from former Sony-based producer Scott Rudin to Pascal. Though Lynton said many apologies were made, he insisted the studio hasn’t lost any talent due to the revelations.
“For the most part, Hollywood is very transactional,” he said. “People want to make movies and television shows. I think a lot can be forgiven in that process. Most of the people continue to work with the studio. We haven’t lost anyone because of that.”
The talk, dubbed Sony After the Hack: Lessons in Leadership, touched on lingering doubts that North Korea was the mastermind behind the hack. In December 2014, the U.S. government fingered the North Korean government for the hack — an assertion still disputed in the cyber-security community. The rogue nation was presumably retaliating against the studio’s Christmas Day comedy The Interview, which depicted Kim Jong Un in an unflattering light. Ignatius expressed skepticism, but Lynton twice stressed that from his perspective, the FBI is correct.
“There’s no question in my mind,” he said, noting that he had met with a top official at the Justice Department as recently as Tuesday. “They did extensive forensics. … The level of sophistication to do what was done was so high.”
The one-hour discussion included a Q&A portion where Lynton answered a few written questions submitted by the audience. It was meant to address the role of leadership and adaptation amid a corporate landscape increasingly vulnerable to digital theft. But much of the talk centered around The Interview. Lynton admitted to being part of the decision-making process that greenlighted the Seth Rogen comedy, but he said there was little indication in advance that North Korea would react in such a destructive fashion.
“There was a conversation around it,” he said. “Everyone said [North Korea] will be upset about it. But this was the first evidence anyone had of how Kim Jong Un would act.”
Ignatius pressed, asking, if, in retrospect, Sony should have made the film without using the dictator’s name.
“It was very much the filmmakers’ [Rogen and Evan Goldberg] vision at the time,” Lynton explained. “Once you’ve made the decision to make the film, you are absolutely obliged [to carry out the filmmakers’ vision]. That’s where we got ourselves in a difficult situation.”
Lynton recalled a similar situation in his career when he was at Penguin Books during the time it published Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which invoked a fatwa against the author. Lynton brushed off Ignatius’ suggestion that The Interview should have been a better movie in order to take on such a risk.
“Satanic Verses was by no stretch Salman Rushdie’s best work, but that’s not the point,” said Lynton. “They felt it was their duty to publish the book.”
As for The Interview, Lynton joked, “Yeah, I do wish it was better, but it’s a fun movie.”
To this day, Lynton has not looked at any of his emails that are now catalogued for the public by Wikileaks, with one exception.
“If they pertain to my wife, I might look at that,” he said. “I would say I’ve looked at seven emails out of 66,000 emails or more. It feels irrelevant now.”
Ultimately, Lynton hopes that other multinational corporations learn from the Sony hack.
“Sony was and is the canary in the coal mine,” said Lynton of business vulnerability in the digital age. “What would be a shame is if we go through all this, and people still say, ‘This can’t happen to me.'”
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James Gordon Meek