Sony Pictures announced that co-chairman Amy Pascal will be stepping down to pursue a new production venture within the studio in May. This comes after a cyberattack exposed embarrassing e-mails between Pascal and other Hollywood figures. (Reuters)

Amy Pascal’s improbable career in Hollywood began when she responded to a classified ad for someone to answer calls for a TV producer. She got the job and spent the next three decades climbing her way to become one of most powerful executives in the industry.

Her extraordinary rise ended Thursday as Sony Pictures Entertainment announced Pascal was stepping down as co-chair of the major studio, months after she endured a prolonged public relations disaster when hacked private e-mails showed her making  racially charged jokes about the president.

Pascal’s departure comes on the heels of a massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment that led to the leaking of unreleased films, sensitive employee data and embarrassing emails. The company has played down the financial costs of the hacking that began around Thanksgiving last year and has expressed support for Pascal, who endured the most ridicule and scrutiny over her leaked emails.

She drew criticism for emails with producer Scott Rudin in which she speculated about President Obama’s favorite films, a list that only included movies featuring black actors. Other e-mails between Pascal and Rudin included criticism of actors including Angelina Jolie and Kevin Hart.

Sony Pictures Entertainment said Pascal will stay within the company but leave her position to form a new production unit within the studio. Sony has agreed to finance the venture for four years, with all distribution rights.

In the release, Pascal, 56, said the decision to start a new venture had long been in the works. The company did not mention last year’s cyberattack as a factor in her departure. Sony did not respond to requests to comment.

“I have spent almost my entire professional life at Sony Pictures and I am energized to be starting this new chapter based at the company I call home,” said Pascal. “I have always wanted to be a producer.”

Pascal said that she and Sony Pictures co-chair Michael Lynton had “been talking about this transition for quite some time.”

The U.S. government tied the attack on Sony’s computer system to the North Korean government, which condemned the studio’s recent satire “The Interview.” Hackers warned against the release of the film, a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Sony estimated the costs associated with the hacking of its networks would be around $15 million for “investigation and remediation.” Experts had initially put the cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Pascal’s departure from one of the most powerful positions in Hollywood caps an impressive rise in a male-dominated industry. Her film credits include award-winning and blockbuster films such as “Awakenings,” “The Social Network” and “American Hustle.”

Soon after graduating from UCLA, she saw a job listing in the Hollywood Reporter magazine to assist BBC producer Tony Garnett. She learned about the industry from the acclaimed producer and created a network of contacts in the job.

In 1988 she moved into the film industry, joining 20th Century Fox. Soon after, she switched to Columbia Pictures, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Over 27 years, she rose through the management ranks and became known in Hollywood for her ability to create relationships with stars, directors and producers and to spot blockbuster films.

In 2003, she was named co-chair of the movie studio along with Lynton. She worked on the creative side and he ran operations.

“In recent months, SPE faced some unprecedented challenges, and I am grateful for Amy’s resilience and grace during this period,” Lynton said. “Amy’s creativity, drive, and bold choices helped define SPE as a studio where talented individuals could take chances and push boundaries in order to deliver outstanding entertainment. I am delighted that Amy will be continuing her association with SPE through this new venture, which capitalizes on her extraordinary talents.

Under Pascal’s tenure, Sony Pictures received 315 Academy Award nominations and 212 Golden Globe nominations. She oversaw blockbusters such as “Casino Royale,” the Spider-man film series, “Menin Black,” “Awakenings,” and “A League of Their Own.”

The massive hacking of Sony Pictures ranges from executives' e-mails disparaging actors to leaked personal information. The Post's Cecilia Kang explains what has been revealed so far, and why it could get much worse for the production company. (Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)