Joe Cummings illustration: Amy Pascal

From Senate intelligence committee rebukes over factual inaccuracies in the film Zero Dark Thirty to stinging criticism from one of America’s leading activist investors, Amy Pascal has weathered big crises in recent years.

But nothing comes close to the past few weeks. The co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment — a supporter of edgy movies, such as American Hustle and Captain Phillips, as well as crowd-pleasing fare such as The Smurfs and the Spider-Man series — has been dealing with a cyber attack for which the Federal Bureau of Investigation says Pyongyang is responsible.

There has never been a hack like it. Important data were deleted; executive pay information, social security numbers and health records were dumped online. Forthcoming movies were released to streaming sites and private emails — including embarrassing and racially charged messages between Ms Pascal and Scott Rudin, a leading producer — were leaked.

If the hackers were looking to cause maximum damage, they hit the jackpot this week when they sent a message invoking the attacks of September 11 2001 and warning that cinemas showing The Interview, a Seth Rogen comedy about a farcical assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, would be targeted. The resulting panic started with the largest US cinema chains cancelling showings and ended with Sony scrapping the movie.

Sources close to Sony Pictures say that for Ms Pascal, Michael Lynton, Sony Entertainment chief executive, and the studio it is business as usual. But, with agents from the FBI swarming over its Los Angeles headquarters and damaging emails still appearing online, the company remains a studio in crisis.

At the start of the week, Ms Pascal, the 56-year-old daughter of an economist at the Rand Corporation think-tank and a librarian, was taking flak from the Hollywood trade press, with some speculating that she would not survive. Her private exchanges with Mr Rudin have tested relationships with talent. There was a swift response from Scandal’s Shonda Rhimes, television’s hottest producer and showrunner. The discussions with Mr Rudin were not “racially insensitive” but “racist”, she said.

Rebuilding these relationships will be crucial if Ms Pascal decides to stay with Sony when her contract runs out in March. Kazuo Hirai, chief executive of the studio’s Tokyo-based parent company, has expressed support for her and Mr Lynton. But after weeks of embarrassing disclosures, even if she were offered a new deal, would she sign?

Ms Pascal started out as a secretary, landing a job with Tony Garnett, the acclaimed British television producer. She left to become a producer, working her way up until she joined the latest incarnation of Sony in 1996 as president of its Columbia Pictures division. She is the studio’s lead creative executive, working closely with the bookish Mr Lynton, who oversees business operations. He has the larger, more senior role but “she’s the real power at the studio”, says someone who knows both well.

Sony’s output this year has not been particularly memorable. The second instalment in the Spider-Man franchise failed to deliver the billion-dollar box office that executives had predicted. The studio has also undergone a painful round of cost-cutting, shedding hundreds of jobs and having to opt out of films that would have once been a natural fit for Ms Pascal’s tastes. The most recent example is a forthcoming biopic of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, which she was desperate to make but lost to Universal Studios.

The cost-cutting was prompted by activist investor Dan Loeb. Last year he built a big position in Sony stock and said Mr Lynton and Ms Pascal were responsible for “a complete lack of leadership and poor financial controls”. He had a point. The studio had been known as one of Hollywood’s more lavish berths, indulging stars with expensive passion projects: Will Smith’s 2013 bomb, After Earth, is a prime example. Ms Pascal herself enjoyed a gilt-edged lifestyle. She employed an assistant who earned more than $250,000 a year, and had use of a private jet and other perks in keeping with Hollywood’s Golden Age.

With Mr Loeb gone, the fallout from the hack is Sony’s most pressing challenge. Ms Pascal’s close friends have stood by her but rival studios have been silent. George Clooney hit out at Mr Loeb on Ms Pascal’s behalf last year; and on Thursday he said in an interview with the Deadline site that leading industry figures had refused to sign a petition of support circulated by his agent, Bryan Lourd, managing partner of the powerful Creative Artists Agency. He accused rival studios of closing ranks, saying they were scared to
support Sony in case they themselves were targeted. “As we watched one group be completely vilified, nobody stood up. Nobody took that stand,” he said.

The irony is that this week’s threat
of violence and the scrapping of the movie may have strengthened Ms Pascal’s hand, should she pursue a new deal at Sony. As the focus turns to how the US responds to the worst act yet of cyber terrorism, thegossipy disclosures in the private emails have lost their punch.

The attack on Sony Pictures, it turns out, was actually a devastating attack on not just one or two executives but on American freedom of expression. Hollywood, and the rest of the world, would be wise to take it seriously.

The writer is the FT’s global media editor

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