Friday, February 06, 2015

And...Cut! Amy Pascal Out As Head of Sony Pictures

Ousted Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal
As the old saying goes, no one ever gets fired in Hollywood; they just "step down to pursue other interests."

From some of the articles I've been reading in 'The Hollywood Reporter' over the past few weeks, the announcement earlier today that Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal was ousted as head of the studio was less a surprise than an inevitability.

Even before Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton sent out a company-wide e-mail this morning notifying employees of Pascal's departure, industry insiders and entertainment reporters alike have been suggesting that the Sony Corporation, the Japanese-owned parent company of Sony Pictures, would tactfully wait to remove Pascal from her post in the wake of the release of e-mail exchanges between her and her former 20th Century Fox boss, producer Scott Rudin.

The notorious e-mail exchanges, which caused a media firestorm when Gawker released them back in December, revealed Pascal and Rudin snidely mocking President Obama and showing a shocking contempt for the tastes of the African-American film audience.

This is the same Hollywood executive who called television "the new black baby" in those e-mails, is also seen in pictures with a grin on her face sucking up to actor Will Smith who's films have grossed $1,422,684,978, almost $1.5 BILLION dollars for Sony.

If you read any of today's mainstream media reports about Pascal's ouster, most of them point to the hacking of the Sony database last fall as the key factor that led to her being fired (and make no mistake, she was fired) but I disagree.

Sure, the hack was a direct result of the North Korean regime's anger over a comedy ('The Interview') about two Americans recruited by the CIA to participate in a plot to assassinate reclusive and mysterious "Supreme Leader" Kim Jong-un.

And the unprecedented release of confidential information was unquestionably embarrassing for the 47,000 Sony employees whose personal data was compromised, but as far as Pascal's firing is concerned, I think it's more than that.

I believe in free speech, but I don't think I'm the only one who questioned the wisdom  (and taste) of green-lighting a movie about plotting to kill the leader of a notoriously repressive foreign country with nuclear ambitions.

To me there was something culturally insensitive about a movie that presents the leader of an Asian nation as a buffoonish cartoon character; I mean, would Sony have green-lit a movie about two ditzy American guys participating in a plot to kill the British Prime Minister or the German Chancellor?

The difficult and complicated relationship between the nation of Japan and both North and South Korea, is fraught with tensions over complex cultural differences that stretch back hundreds of years.

Korean 'Comfort Women' in WWII
For example, the fact that during WWII the Japanese Army routinely kidnapped young Korean women (many under 18) and brought them back to army barracks where they were forced to serve as 'comfort women' to fulfill the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers, remains a highly contentious issue that strains relationships between the two nations to this day.

Check out Mindy Kotler's Op-Ed essay 'The Comfort Women and Japan's War on Truth' that appeared in the New York Times back on November 14, 2014.

Given this historical context, how do you think North Koreans would react to a powerful Japanese-owned corporation releasing a comedy film about a plot to kill their leader?

Hollywood lampooning the leader of a foreign nation on film isn't exactly a new concept.

Charlie Chaplin as 'Hynkel'
The great Charlie Chaplin used comedy to denounce Adolph Hitler in his 1938 film, 'The Great Dictator', but he used a character called 'Hynkel' to satirize the notorious dictator, The Third Reich and fascism.

Remarkably, Chaplin's career eventually suffered as a result of his overtly political statement even though it was one of his most successful films.

But Seth Rogen is no Charlie Chaplin, nor should 'The Interview' be compared with Chaplin's masterpiece.

Ultimately Amy Pascal bears responsibility as the one who green-lit Rogen's movie, and in doing so tarnished her distinguished career as a highly-respected studio head responsible for a huge number of popular films that were financially and critically successful for Sony.

But she works in a ruthless business where (to many) you're only as good as your last project.
But it's not like Sony just tossed her on the street. I certainly don't know Kazuo Harai, the president and CEO of Sony Corporation, but I do know he backed Amy Pascal's leadership at Sony Pictures during some tough times in the past few years.

I don't think her having released 'The Interview' ever sat well with a powerful Japanese executive like him; and her choice probably made him question her decision making.

When the movie directly led to 'The Hack', Sony still publicly backed her - but when the racially insensitive e-mail exchange between her and Scott Rudin came out back in December, I think it was probably the last straw for Pascal; if her fate hadn't already been sealed.

The movie and 'The Hack' clearly tarnished Sony's reputation as a global brand.

But those stupid e-mails were precisely what Sony didn't need after a dismal year for its box office revenue at a time when Hollywood's appalling lack of African-Americans working in front of, and behind the camera is under such intense scrutiny and criticism.

As I blogged about back in December, when those snarky e-mails between Pascal and Rudin were leaked, the language they used and the casually dismissive way they talked so condescendingly about the tastes of the black American film audience stood out as smoking gun examples of why there are so few minority film executives, writers, producers and directors in Hollywood.

From a strategic standpoint, Sony pulling the plug on Pascal before the Oscars was shrewd.

The Academy is already drawing widespread criticism for having no black actors, producers or directors nominated for Oscars this year. By removing Pascal as the head of the studio, Sony Pictures is making a clear statement before one of the most widely watched live events on the planet.

At a time when films like '12 Years a Slave', 'The Butler' or 'Selma' are proving that films with primarily African-American casts and story lines can achieve box office and critical success, Pascal and Rudin's attitudes come off as tired and out of step.

In these days when the black film audience accounts for as much as 20% of box office revenue (do the math, total box office revenue came in at $10.35 billion for 2014), and Hispanic audiences are accounting for an even larger share, as Bloomberg Business reported, Hollywood is clearly still out of step with the reality of the demographics of an increasingly diverse American landscape.

But with Pascal removed as the head of the studio, Sony Pictures is trying to be proactive in taking a step in the right direction.

Regardless of the internal politics behind the decision, it's clear they don't want their brand associated with the ignorant crap she said when she thought no one was looking. And don't think her comments about President Obama weren't a factor either, dude has a lot of friends in Hollywood.

Who knows? It won't be easy but maybe Pascal will find a way to redeem her reputation; after all Sony did announce she'll take on an independent production role on the Sony lot where she'll oversee some pretty big productions coming through the pipeline for Sony, so obviously she still wields power in the industry.

We are a nation that loves an underdog; and nowhere is a 2nd chance more appreciated than in Hollywood.

By the way I must say, Pascal wasn't the only one on those leaked e-mail exchanges; interesting that there don't seem to be too many professional repercussions for Scott Rudin.

I guess Hollywood gives him a pass?

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