Sony Pictures Entertainment is mounting an aggressive defense against the debilitating hack that has pummeled the movie studio for weeks with leaks of sensitive information, but those efforts Tuesday were met with escalating threats to damage the company.
On Tuesday, a group claiming to be responsible for the Sony hack posted a message on the text-sharing site Pastebin threatening violence against theaters showing the movie “The Interview,” a comedy that ends with the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The movie is scheduled to be widely released by Sony on Christmas Day.
“We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places ‘The Interview’ be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to,” reads the message. “Remember the 11th of September 2001.”
In a sign of growing anxiety over the threat, Sony informed theater owners that they don’t have to show the movie if they’re worried about doing so, according to multiple reports late Tuesday citing anonymous sources.
The Department of Homeland Security is aware of the threat and is still analyzing its credibility, according to an official at DHS who declined to speak on the record because the government’s investigation into the matter is ongoing. The official added, though, that “there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States.”
The group’s note also included links purporting to provide more documents labeled “mlynton” — an apparent reference to Sony Pictures chief executive Michael Lynton.
Three weeks after hackers infiltrated and began wreaking havoc on Sony Pictures Entertainment, the movie studio is trying to take control of a spiraling business disaster.
This week, top executives held town hall meetings to apologize to deflated employees whose health, social security and pay data have been made public and to try to rally them to move forward.
It hired Rubenstein Communications, which has helped the NFL with its crises, to respond to media and try to shore up the badly bruised image of top brass, whose e-mail banter has outraged everyone from actors and filmmakers to civil rights leaders.
Sony has bolstered its legal offensive, hiring renowned litigator David Boies, who is threatening legal action against media that obtain and report on Sony data leaked by the hacker group known as Guardians of Peace.
But the challenge of containing the damage from the hack continues to be daunting.
The rest of the movie industry, after weeks of silence, released a statement Tuesday offering its support for Sony.
“Obviously this is a very difficult time for Sony. Sony is not just a valued member of our association family, but they are friends and colleagues and we feel for them personally,” said Chris Dodd, president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Dodd said he has been in daily contact with Lynton as the company continues to battle nearly daily leaks of its data.
“From the highest levels of our organization working with the highest levels of theirs, we are doing anything and everything that Sony believes could be helpful and will continue to do so,” Dodd wrote.
The unprecedented scope of the attack on Sony and its struggle to keep up on the public disaster has put the company and the movie industry in unprecedented territory.
The stars of “The Interview,” Seth Rogen and James Franco, have canceled appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “Late Night” and other media events in the wake of the latest set of threats.
“This is more damaging than anything we’ve seen and different in that it is politically motivated,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow and cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This month, a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, declined to comment on allegations about North Korea being the source of the attacks but said, “While it may be difficult for [North Korea] to understand the concept, in the United States, entertainers are free to make movies of their choosing.”
Unprepared and slow to respond to the continued drip of private data to the public, Sony has been forced to play Whac-a-Mole to defuse one crisis after another.
“The playbook is being rewritten as we speak,” said E. Ashley McCown, president of the crisis-communications firm Solomon McCown. “Sony’s response is indicative of how incredibly complicated and far reaching this breach is. It is unprecedented.”
Civil rights leaders and some in the entertainment industry have criticized Amy Pascal, Sony co-chair, for what appeared to some as a weak apology for joking remarks about President Obama’s taste in films. In a series of e-mails, she and movie producer Scott Rudin rattled off movies that star black male actors.
“We will determine if we will join in calls for her resignation or whether she will seriously deal with the fact that Hollywood reflects a lot of what was said in that conversation,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a video for TMZ on Monday.
But Sony’s attempts to squash media coverage of the leaks has yet to gain traction.
On Monday night, Gawker posted online a scene from the yet-to-be-released movie “The Interview” with the death of the North Korean leader.
Gawker also published leaked e-mail exchanges between actor Seth Rogen and a Sony executive who had pressed for a less gory death.
“We took out three out of four face embers,” Rogen wrote in reference to shrapnel hitting Kim Jung Un’s face, according to Gawker. “Reduced the hair burning by 50%, and significantly darkened the chunks of Kim’s head.”
Emily Yahr contributed to this report.
For video, go to wapo.st/SonyHack.