Whether fans of the celebrities insulted in snarky, leaked e-mails will decide to punish Sony Pictures Entertainment by withholding box-office dollars might be the least of the beleaguered company’s problems. But it is a problem in our entertainment-hungry society, where competition for attention and audience is fierce.
To say Sony is having a very bad time right now would be an understatement. After a North Korean cyberattack exposed confidential records and information, the decision by Sony and theater owners not to screen “The Interview” miraculously united President Obama and Republicans. They all agreed that shelving the comedy was a mistake, a caving-in to cyber blackmail from a dictator. All those Seth Rogen-James Franco fans might clear their heads enough to object, as well. The rollout that wasn’t is said to have cost the company $100 million, though Sony said it plans some sort of eventual release.
But even before its criticized decision, e-mails and jokes exchanged about major money-makers proved the company was more than willing to take a swipe at the stars it coddles, and bite the hands of fans who feed Sony coffers — fans of stars, including prominent African-American performers, in Sony’s employ. It also became clear major Hollywood support does not shield a president of the United States from racist jabs.
The timing could not be worse, as theaters fill up on Christmas Day, refuge for the stir crazy, filled to the brim with eggnog and good cheer. Every dollar counts and this kind of publicity is not the kind any company craves.
Among the list of exchanges the studio would rather have remained private was an e-mail from Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, calling popular comedian Kevin Hart a “whore” for asking for more money to promote his films on social media.
And a producer cautioned Sony chairman Michael Lynton against casting two-time Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington in “The Equalizer.” The note said films with black actors don’t perform as well in the international market as those with white actors in the lead because those audiences are “racist.” Is that true? Well, “The Equalizer” did pretty well overseas. “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the 20th Century Fox version of the Moses story, cast white actors in the leads in the Biblical epic, took some heat for it, and has hardly ignited the box office.
If Denzel can’t pass muster, who can? Will African Americans, a disproportionate percentage of moviegoers, take note of all the casually racist e-mail Sony exchanges when making their choices? It’s always revelatory when you find out just what people think of you.
According to the Motion Picture Association of America’s report for 2013, minorities made up a healthy percentage of movie-goers, particularly considering their percentage of the population. In 2013, perhaps due to the number of films with diverse themes and casts, the numbers of African Americans going to the movies increased significantly for the first time since 2009. It was the year of Oscar-winner “12 Years a Slave,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “The Best Man Holiday.”
Several of those films also made the list of the films Sony executive Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin joked that President Obama must like; Kevin Hart, who has done pretty well for Sony, was on that list. Doing damage control after that glimpse at what passes for playful banter in Hollywood executive suites, Pascal has since met with the Rev. Al Sharpton and president of the National Urban League Marc H. Morial, though hiring a diverse slate of executives for Sony would mean more than a slew of high-profile Manhattan meetings and conciliatory words.
It wasn’t so much that the e-mails between Pascal and Rudin were filled with racially tinged remarks, though that was certainly true. It was that those remarks were so witless, so lacking in subtlety and humor. The president is black so he must like films with black people in them? You expect more than that from the taste-makers pulling down multimillion dollar paychecks.
But maybe not. Considering the mediocre reviews that have been coming in for Sony’s “Annie,” cast with a diverse group of actors and leaked in advance by the hackers, audiences might agree to forget the e-mails if the studio would just provide them with fresh material.