Sony hack gave us really juicy details on pay

When computer hackers broke into the servers of Sony Pictures a few days ago, it was hard to imagine there could be anything worse for the studio’s executives.

They managed to steal copies of Sony’s current hit movie, Fury starring Brad Pitt and worse, three of its most promising upcoming releases. Annie, the big-budget hip-hop musical, and two forthcoming dramas were stolen and then made available on internet torrent sites, where users can download (usually pirated) media at blizzard speeds.

You’d expect that a giant multinational media company like Sony would be obsessed with the potential loss of major box office returns. When a movie is available to everyone, for free, weeks before it premières in the cinemas, that’s got to make a dent in its profits.

These days though, every motion picture studio – and probably every other content producer in the media universe – assumes that a certain portion of the audience is going to watch a product for free. In Hollywood, box office losses due to theft and piracy are what we call “baked into the cake”. That is, they’re already factored into the profit projections of each release.

The theory is that there are two kinds of people: regular ones, like you and me, who would prefer to simply go to the cinema to watch a film or pay for a legal (and safe) download to watch at home, and web-savvy computer geeks, who actually enjoy connecting to a shadowy torrent site and downloading stolen material. Annie, which Sony has high hopes for, is still expected to be a box office triumph, mostly because the kind of people who know how to navigate around complicated bit torrent sites aren’t the ones who get excited about a big budget musical about an adorable orphan. So while Sony executives were officially perturbed by the hacking, they weren’t exactly freaking out.

That is, until a day or so ago, when it was revealed that the hackers had unearthed something even more juicy and dangerous than a few upcoming releases.

In the plundering of the company’s databases, they discovered lots of sensitive intra-company communications. Emails discussing the personal habits – and lunacies – of certain movie stars were uncovered. Contracts enumerating sensitive and specific points of many production deals were revealed. And, worse, the salaries and other compensation considerations of the studio’s top 17 executives were reprinted in the handy, universally accepted, easily forwarded, PDF format.

From the moment the information was exposed, everyone in the Hollywood universe has been preoccupied by three frantic activities, depending on where he or she is on the ladder of importance.

Low-level employees have been forwarding and re-forwarding the documents in long, looping email chains. For the workers at the bottom end of the Hollywood ladder, this list has been like a bracing tonic. Especially around this time of year, when the days grow shorter and the year-end financial reporting turns even the nicest boss into a shrieking, stressed and panicky stress-case. So, at this time, it’s nice to be reminded that if you stick with it, keep your mouth closed and your head down, a hugely inflated salary for little or no actual work product is in your future.

For the upper-level executives – those at Sony and elsewhere – it’s been a torturous few days. As everyone who has ever earned – or paid – a salary knows, the last thing you want is for everyone to know what everyone else is making because despite what it says in America’s founding documents, we may all be created equal but we are most definitely not getting paid the same by our bosses.

Executives at Sony discovered that the person who runs the television side of the studio is paid almost a quarter of a million dollars less than the person who runs the feature film side, despite helming a more profitable division. People at the same levels of management realised that they were vastly underpaid, except for the lucky (and now deeply loathed) few who discovered that they had somehow won the great sweepstakes of life.

For studio executives, for whom the size of the pay packet has an almost mystical and erotic power, it’s a crippling humiliation to be revealed as a low earner. One embarrassed Sony executive – whose salary was much lower than any of us expected – has spent the past few days, according to rumour, trying to convince anyone who will listen that his “real” compensation is made up of the “killer bonuses” he gets at the end of the year.

“What those guys downloaded was just my base number, dude,” he was overheard to say. “I only wish they had hacked into my bonus number.”

Which may or may not be true. Either way, the guy is desperate for all of us to believe it. So even if the hackers have spoiled the box office appeal of Sony’s unreleased movies, they’ve still provided us all with a very entertaining spectacle.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Published: December 5, 2014 04:00 AM

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