Amy Pascal has led Sony Pictures for more than a decade. She’s endured activist investor Daniel Loeb’s calls for her head and the twin disasters that were “After Earth” and “White House Down.” She’s experienced the highs of the first “Spider-Man” trilogy and the lows of a Senate investigation into the torture depictions in “Zero Dark Thirty.” She’s developed a reputation for her shrewd creative sensibility, and has surprised people by her willingness to dispatch key lieutenants when it was expedient. She’s a survivor.
The hourglass may be running out on her time at Sony, however. The devastating hack attack has exposed emails that could jeopardize Pascal’s relationships with key talent throughout the industry. Most damaging from a public relations perspective is a series of racially-charged jokes Pascal made with producer Scott Rudin, during which the two suggested that President Barack Obama must enjoy “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave” and Kevin Hart films.
Both have since apologized and Pascal has made a point of reaching out to civil rights leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. But her remarks have drawn stinging rebukes from the likes of Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay, signs that her reputation is at a low ebb.
For now, Tokyo-based Sony Corp. CEO Kaz Hirai and the company’s board may hold off on any decision, so it does not appear as though they are yielding to pressure from the hacker group.
“She’s at the center of the storm,” said media analyst Hal Vogel. “It has nothing to do with her performance as an executive. People should be sympathetic to her, but the reality is that’s probably not the way that’s going to turn out.”
He points out that there are many projects in various stages of development and Sony has not had time to create a succession plan.
Not everyone appears convinced that Pascal’s future status at Sony is a guarantee.
“Even though she seems a victim, not a perpetrator of the hacking, those emails probably are too much for Sony’s Japanese sensibilities to withstand,” said Porter Bibb, managing partner of Mediatech Capital Partners.
Pascal, a liberal voice on issues such as same sex marriage and a vocal supporter of Obama, has insisted that the remarks about the President do not reflect her true beliefs or character. However, the race comments aren’t the only fire in this public relations inferno that Pascal must put out.
In correspondence with Rudin and other top executives, Pascal speaks bluntly about a number of industry figures such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Leonardo DiCaprio. Rudin baldly dissed Angelina Jolie and financier-producer Megan Ellison. Likewise, Sony’s Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper insulted Kevin Hart by calling him a “whore” for wanting more money to promote “Think Like a Man Too,” while other executives poked fun at Adam Sandler’s creative output. Hart hit back on Twitter. Relations with all this high profile talent is surely strained.
Pascal has granted interviews to a few publications in which she said she was disappointed in herself and embarrassed. Her initial apology also described her comments as “insensitive and inappropriate,” while making a point that the communication was private and stolen. Some of the notes she hit were false, experts say.
“She needs to approach this as an executive in charge,” said Richard Laermer, a crisis management expert and CEO of RLM Public Relations.”Everything she’s said has been very namby-pamby and excusing herself left and right.”
There have been statements of support, from the likes of producer Doug Wick and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. One Sony insider said there was a lot of sympathy for Pascal given that the messages were intended to be kept private and had been subjected to unfair scrutiny.
“This is stolen material and Amy should be given the benefit of the doubt,” said Ross Johnson, an entertainment industry publicist. “She should be put in the penalty box, not subjected to the firing squad. Look at every single statement that this woman makes in these emails. Does it violate anything with her employment contract? Is there any misconduct? No.”
Pascal had already been concerned that the ax might fall on her head prior to the latest disclosures. Although Sony has fielded hits such as “22 Jump Street” and “Captain Phillips,” the studio is still reeling from the months of layoffs enacted as a response to Loeb’s criticism of its management. Likewise, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” did respectable business but was hardly the $1 billion blockbuster that Pascal had told people on the lot she needed it to be.
As the hacking attack worsened last week, speculation about Pascal’s departure grew louder. But she’s frustrated with the naysayers and her supporters maintain that rumors of her demise are premature at best.