It was as if a virtual earthquake hit the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot in Culver City on the morning of Nov. 24, when employees realized that the company had been the target of a massive hack attack.
Executives and other staffers gathered in the halls, incredulous and unnerved by the menacing message on their computer screens. According to insiders, the initial reaction was mostly frustration and aggravation, as work efforts were hobbled by the lack of email and access to Sony’s network.
But as the scope of the attack became clear, frustration has turned to fear, particularly after employees were targeted again Dec. 5, with a threatening message purportedly from “the head of the GOP who made you worry.” The acronym refers to the mysterious Guardians of Peace, which claimed responsibility for the hack — and days later denied ever issuing the earlier threat.
It’s been quite a blow to a company that has already weathered more than its share of storms in the past two and a half years, from a string of box office flops to the criticism of its performance by activist investor Daniel Loeb to the management turmoil in the corporate office in Japan to the ever-present rumors that the studio would be sold or spun off.
“There’s a feeling of ‘Why us?’ After everything we’ve been through, why would we be the ones to get targeted for a full-on terrorist attack by hackers?” said a senior executive. Insiders have declined to comment on the record, per an edict from SPE bosses that the company speak with “one voice” at present regarding the attack.
There have been clear signs of FBI investigators working on the lot as law enforcement officials comb every inch of the company for clues to the hack perpetrators. More than one staffer has noted the irony of the investigation unfolding at the studio that’s behind the “Men in Black” film franchise.
“We need the flashy-thing to work,” joked a longtime exec, referring to the memory-erasing gizmo used in the “MIB” pics.
For employees, the process of contacting the Social Security Administration regarding leaked personal numbers — plus banks and credit card companies — has been a time-consuming hassle piled on top of the work-related headaches caused by the hack.
Among some Sony employees past and present, there is also a sense of frustration directed at their employer, whose preparedness for this kind of security breach is unclear. “They don’t care about us, the people who make their products,” said one Sony employee who wished to remain anonymous. “They see us, our lives, our families, as disposable.”
But as much as morale has suffered, the sense of being under siege from unknown attackers also has had the effect of drawing staffers closer together. The situation has forced people to engage in more face-to-face communication than they would otherwise have, even for those who sit in offices right next to each other.
In the first days of the email shutdown, execs scrambled to pull together text-message networks using personal cell phones. Staffers tried to help one another by putting their heads together to remember details of key deals, development projects, drafts of contracts, press releases and marketing materials. One TV exec who needed info for a key meeting with a network buyer was bailed out when another staffer happened to have a copy of meeting notes on a personal email account.
“There’s a positive side to all of this that has been interesting to see,” said the senior exec.
Even two weeks after the initial attack, access to files and data varied widely among staffers because of the quick Band-Aid solution that the company came up with to restore email. Some employees were back online with all of their past emails and contacts intact, while others only had a few day’s worth of older email and no contacts.
For top company execs, most notably SPE chairman Michael Lynton and co-chair Amy Pascal, the lack of answers has been a test of their credibility with employees. They’ve had to choose their words carefully, and haven’t been able to reassure staffers that the worst is over.
But for others, the information disseminated by the Sony hack was something of a fait accompli, given how security breaches like the celebrity nude photo leak have pervaded the culture of Hollywood.
“Generally, I live as if all of my information is already out there,” said an A-list director who was one of the hack’s victims. “I gave up hope of privacy a long time ago.”
Ramin Setoodeh contributed to this report.