Sony Pictures CEO: Dealing With Studio Hack Was "Sort of Like the Titanic"

Courtesy of Sony Corporation of America
Michael Lynton

Also at the Milken Conference, CBS chief Leslie Moonves declared the era of the skinny bundle for TV.

Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton on Wednesday reminisced about seeing The Interview in a movie theater shortly after the studio defied North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un and opened the controversial film on Christmas Day.

"It became such an issue of free speech in this country," he said. "I went to a bunch of screenings at independent movie theaters in Los Angeles, and people stood up and said The Pledge of Allegiance or sang The National Anthem, before a Seth Rogen comedy."

Lynton was speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles on a panel that also included CBS chief Leslie Moonves, Fox Networks Group CEO Peter Rice and film producer Nina Jacobson.

North Korean agents allegedly hacked into Sony Pictures in an attempt to prevent the distribution of The Interview, which features the assassination of Kim. Sony released it online and in theaters at the same time.

Host Julia Boorstin of CNBC asked Lynton if there were lessons to learn from the "experience" of the so-called day-and-date release of The Interview.

"Sort of like the Titanic. I wouldn't call that an 'experience,' " Lynton quipped, before adding: "It was unique, and I don't think there's a great deal to be learned ... What we experienced at Sony I think is not a lesson. Well, there are other lessons having to do with email."

Much of the conversation, though, dealt with the importance of foreign markets for film and television, and digital distribution of TV.

Jacobson said that when she was an executive at Walt Disney she loved making sports films, though she quickly learned they didn't travel so well internationally. This, though, prompted Moonves to predict massive overseas audience for the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquaio fight Saturday.

"In the Philippines, I don't think there will be a household not tuned into this fight," Moonves said.

Lynton said studios need to think not of what will play well in the United States when greenlighting films, but what will play in two-thirds of the world. 

"NCIS is the biggest TV drama in world," said Moonves, adding that foreign TV producers haven't been able to compete even at a local level. He said, therefore, that it is a "golden age of television" once again.

Moonves said international sales, along with distribution over Netflix and and other services, is what makes it possible to offer original summer series. "Ads aren't as important," he said.

Lynton agreed it is a "golden age in television" but only for drama, not comedy. The exception being The Simpsons, "Homer is a god," he joked.

"Only a very inexpensive movie can afford not to travel," added Jacobson.

Jacobson also said that Hollywood ignores female audiences at its peril. She said the industry went through "a long period of collective stupidity" trying to cater to young men. Women, on the other hand, aren't distracted by "video games, sports and porn," so have more time for movies.

Gravity and Hunger Games played to large female audiences, noted Lynton. 

Jacobson also defended the integrity of the in-theater experience, saying that comedies and horror films are the best examples of an enhanced experience. She got laughs when she added that 50 Shades of Grey is also "more fun in the dark, with strangers."

Rice predicted that in 5 to10 years everyone will be getting their TV over the Internet, but also said it wouldn't matter too much. He likened it to the invention of cable TV then telco TV.

Rice wouldn't commit to a Fox version of CBS All Access, the recently launched standalone service that delivers live TV and repeats over the Internet, but instead sang the praises of Hulu, in which Fox is a primary investor.

Moonves wouldn't offer any hard data for CBS All Access, but said that 80 percent of the viewing is "catch-up," whereby users are binge-watching previous episodes of current shows to catch up with live TV.

Moonves also declared the era of the skinny bundle might be upon us, as consumers tire of paying for large numbers of channels they don't watch.

"There's a lot of stuff out there that's not must-have," he said.