Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Sony Network

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David Fincher

Like a lot of other people, I’ve spent the last few days reading articles about the leaked documents from the massive hack at Sony Pictures. I don’t necessarily feel good about this—regardless of who was responsible for it, the leak amounts to a massive invasion of privacy that will affect the lives of the company’s employees for years to come—but it’s hard to turn away. For an industry that shapes the dreamlife of much of the planet, the daily work of film production, especially on the corporate side, remains largely unseen and misunderstood. In recent years, special features on home video have turned into a major selling point, ironically as a kind of defense against piracy, so we’ve been given detailed looks at every aspect of filmmaking from casting to catering to the editing room. Yet we aren’t likely to see a featurette about the development process. It’s a running joke that nobody outside of Hollywood seems to know what a producer, let alone a studio executive, really does, but that isn’t an accident. There’s an enormous incentive to keep it as opaque as possible, and when we see a producer claim the Best Picture award on Oscar night, it’s no surprise that it’s generally a face that we’ve never seen before or since.

If the Sony leak is any indication, some of those faces are about to become a lot more familiar. In the past, detailed journalistic accounts of studio politics have focused on infamous trainwrecks: Final Cut on Heaven’s Gate, The Devil’s Candy on The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the very best of them all, David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure, on the David Begelman scandal at Columbia. Occasionally, a producer himself will pen a memoir—as Art Linson did with What Just Happened?—but they’re often more interesting for what they omit than what they reveal. What sets the hack at Sony apart is the volume and sheer mundanity of the information released. Media coverage has focused on the juiciest tidbits, like the heated exchange of emails between Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal over the troubled biopic of Steve Jobs, but as fascinating as that material can be, it’s ultimately less interesting than the glimpses we get of the tedious grind of the studio’s operations from week to week: the PowerPoint slides, the spreadsheets, the internal surveys of employee grievances. It’s like any other company, except that the widgets it makes have the power, at their best, to permanently change the inner lives of millions.

William Goldman

Except, of course, they rarely do. If there’s one theme running through the emails and ephemera that have been released so far, it’s a persistent frustration with a system that compels the studio to make movies in which it doesn’t really believe. On the one hand, this manifests as a palpable desire that Adam Sandler would just go away; on the other, a kind of obsession—visible on multiple occasions—with David Fincher, who stands as one of the few living filmmakers capable of making ambitious, critically acclaimed movies that are also commercial hits. (After The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sony seems to have thought of Fincher as their guy, as Warner Bros. must feel about Chris Nolan, so it must have stung when he went to Fox to make Gone Girl.) Throughout it all, there’s a paralyzing effort to reconcile the vagaries of talent and craft with the need to hit financial targets for quarter after quarter. It’s a combination that can pit a personality, or a studio, permanently against itself, and while that kind of tension can occasionally result in spectacular work, the real challenge lies in keeping the machine going for long enough to yield the outliers, the exceptions, the movies that we remember.

“Studio executives,” writes William Goldman, “share one thing in common with baseball managers; they wake up every morning with the knowledge that sooner or later they’re going to be fired.” They’re also working in a field that is explicitly predicated on taking big risks in which the results of a single decision may not be obvious for years—at which point the reckoning can come with blinding speed. Given this unavoidable fact, it’s understandable if executives try to manage that risk in large ways, by focusing on proven franchises and supposed sure things, and small, by thinking in terms of safe corporate clichés and internal maneuvering. You can’t control how audiences will react to Men in Black 3, but you can sort of control how your contribution is perceived by your coworkers. Execs get a bad rap as business school graduates who think they can all give notes to David Mamet, but they’re really talking about something they care about in the only language they know, or in ways they think will allow them to survive. And all of us who try to create things for a living do the same. It’s easy to fall into the trap of worrying more about how we’re seen by editors or agents than about the ruthless demands of the work itself. We’re all just trying to make it to tomorrow, and we’ve all compromised ourselves along the way. Sony just happens to have been unlucky enough to show it.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2014 at 9:54 am

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