Call me if you really want to hear me roar

On Wednesday, Sony Pictures Entertainment – the beleaguered movie studio suffering under withering cyber attacks – unconditionally surrendered to North Korea.

The studio’s controversial upcoming picture, The Interview, a raucous comedy about two journalists tasked with entering North Korea and assassinating its living – and very real – leader, Kim Jung-un, was pulled from the schedule. Its release into theatres was cancelled.

The decision represents a staggering loss of revenue and a gigantic waste of advertising dollars, with billboards and television commercials now uselessly selling audiences on a movie they cannot see.

North Korea is also known as the Hermit Kingdom, thanks to its closed-off society and cult-like obsession with keeping the rest of the world at a distance. And because it’s so creepy and secretive, we don’t really know for certain if North Koreans had the technical competence, or, frankly, the imagination, to pull it off.

What we do know, however, is that when Sony Pictures announced the movie months ago, the North Koreans went a little crazy. That’s understandable, I suppose: it’s one thing to be mocked by a puppet, as the former leader of the country (and the current leader’s father) was not too long ago in the rude, hilarious puppet comedy Team America: World Police. It’s quite another to actively depict the exploding head of the sitting head of a country’s government. North Koreans are weird in a lot of ways, but in this way they’re pretty much like everyone else.

When whoever broke into the computer servers of Sony Pictures – and for the record, the official position of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “Hey, it wasn’t us, but we sure are enjoying this” – released copies of some upcoming Sony movies and some juicy salary information about Sony’s top executives, it was hard to imagine there was worse to come.

But there was worse to come.

A few weeks later, private and free-spirited emails were released, in diabolically-timed batches, showing studio executives bickering, saying insulting things about movie stars, making racist jokes about President Obama, and – much worse, in Hollywood – making terrible decisions about which films to green-light and why.

Everyone makes mistakes in business. Everyone says things off-the-cuff. Honestly, if you’re any good at your job at all you’ve probably engaged in some ill-thought-through banter or trash-talk.

But Sony executives made the biggest fundamental mistake of the digital age: they told the truth to each other in unvarnished language, indelibly, in the worst possible way, electronically, in a method that both records everything forever in searchable format and that is ridiculously easy to break into.

So, if you work at a studio or a network – or, let’s be honest, if you work anywhere where people tend to email each other – and you’ve ever been tempted to have a frank and maybe slightly rowdy exchange over electronic internet channels, I’d like to introduce four words to your vocabulary: “Call Me to Discuss.”

Someone wants to vent or rant or find out what’s really going on in a production or with a star or why a deal isn’t getting made, and they email you with a question? Someone wants an unvarnished reference on a job-seeking colleague? Someone wants to joke around about how stupid this or that CEO is?

You simply respond to this request by replying, “Call me to discuss.” Meet them for a totally analogue conversation over a coffee or even the phone and have at it. Say whatever you want however you want, say what you need to say to get a deal closed or a client landed because – and this is crucial – as long as no one’s recording it, it’s all deniable later.

The humming engine of worldwide commerce doesn’t run on people saying things that they can’t take back, or deny, or change later, and Hollywood is no different.

Every single television show or motion picture you’ve ever seen had its origins in a constellation of lies and half-truths and double-back-able commitments. And that’s not a criticism. That’s how things get moving.

But if every utterance and joke and half-promise is saved, forever, in the cloud – easily hacked, easily recalled, easily tossed back in the speaker’s face or, worse, aired out for the world to see, you might as well shut the global economy down right now.

And please don’t tell me that we need efficient communication technology in today’s marketplace. In their heyday, the two major studios that make up Sony Pictures Entertainment released a hundred movies a year. And they did it with black bakelite desk phones tethered to the wall and Western Union telegrams. Why? Because then you get to say stuff that’s true and deny it later if you have to. Or say stuff that isn’t true and get away with it.

“Call me to discuss,” is the only smart way to do business, especially if your business involves mocking possibly insane dictators.

Wait. Did I write “insane dictators?” Let me take that back.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Published: December 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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