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'The Big Picture': What the Sony hack revealed about major changes in the movie business

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It took "The Big Picture" author Ben Fritz a year to read nearly every document from the Sony hack. And he uncovered a larger story about dramatic changes in the industry.

Cast your memories back to late 2014. That's when we associated the words “international cyber attack” not with Russia or the U.S. presidential election, but instead with North Korea and Sony Pictures.

It's hard to overstate how big the Sony hack was — unreleased films were posted online, millions of files were leaked, confidential employee information was made public, and embarrassing details about the studio's internal workings were laid bare for anyone willing to do some digging.

Wall Street Journal entertainment reporter

was one of the reporters who covered the Sony hack and unearthed those details. It took him about a year to read nearly every email and document revealed in the hack. And while his reporting did in fact reveal some very embarrassing information, it also led him to a bigger story about dramatic changes going on in the film business that are largely hidden from the movie-going public.

It’s all laid out in his new book, “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies.”

The Frame host John Horn spoke with Fritz recently about who’s winning that fight (spoiler alert: it’s not Sony) and about how the hack of the studio fits into it all.

Interview highlights:

On what stood out most from reading all the Sony hack emails and documents:

Most of [the documents] were boring, but some of them were really fascinating and the thing I really got out of it was how much the movie business is not so much about, Is this movie going to be successful on its own terms? It's all about, Is this movie going to contribute enough profits that, added up to our other movies, we're going to reach this target of X hundred million dollars? They're always chasing to reach a goal. And then whenever a movie flops and they fall behind, they're desperate to catch up and see if they can scramble the other movies to reach this overall target that will make the earnings for their parent company happy, that will make Wall Street happy. All the studios are driven by these big profit targets because they're all part of major public companies and that's what they're always chasing. It's so easy to fall behind and then the pressure is just on in this intense way where there really is no winning, there really is only losing.

On Sony's failure to adapt to industry changes:

There was a model that worked in the '90s and the 2000s that was all about having the best talent working at your studio. Every movie might not be a hit, but overall they [had] strong talent and they had a strong batting average. If you made them happy and your studio was their home, you would all benefit from it. During that period in the early 2000s, Adam Sandler and Will Smith, for example, made a lot of successful movies. They made so much money, the Sony executives used to joke that Adam and Will bought [their] houses. That was a really common refrain amongst Sony and it was true. Those guys made so much profit. And being loyal made sense until suddenly their movies weren't working. And then Sony stuck with them for way too long. They believed in those guys and didn't want to let go. They stuck with talent at a time when, for better or worse, talent is by-and-large not what drives the movie business now. It's brands that drive the movie business. 

On Sony passing up the chance to buy Marvel:

Back in the late '90s, Marvel was just coming out of bankruptcy, they were desperate for cash. At the same time Sony, due to some various crazy deals earlier, has the home video rights to Spider-Man but they don't have the theatrical rights. And they want to make a Spider-Man movie. So a Sony executive goes to Marvel around 1998 says, Hey, can we get these theatrical rights? The guys running Marvel at the time say, Forget about Spider-Man, we'll give you the rights to all of our characters, virtually every character. We're talking Captain America, Thor, Ironman, Black Panther. For $25 million you can have it all. Just to flash forward — Disney paid $4 billion for Marvel about 12 years later. The Sony executive that got that offer, he went back to his bosses at the studio at the time and said, Hey we have this offer, and their response to him was, Who gives  a [expletive] about all these other Marvel characters? All we care about is Spider-Man. The other ones are worthless. Who possibly would be interested in Black Panther? It's such a worthless character, just go back and get Spider-Man. So he did go back, he got Spider-Man, those movies were successful, but Sony could've had them all.

On who is making mid-budget adult dramas now that studios are focused on franchises:

The major studios — your Sonys, your Warner Brothers, your Universals — make very few original adult dramas anymore. Those used to be part of their slate. You used to see them every year. It's amazing to imagine that in 1988, "Rain Man" was the number one movie in America. And you know, today 'Rain Man' is a movie that probably wouldn't get made by a studio. The economics don't make sense for these studios anymore. People would rather stay at home and watch that kind of content on television. And those movies don't work internationally, the studio is really a global business now.

So companies like Netflix and Amazon have entirely different business models. They don't care as much if one movie in-and-of-itself is profitable. They have these overall subscription services. I think Netflix cares if you pay your 10 or 12 bucks a month for streaming services and Amazon cares if you pay for Prime and use it to buy your Echo, your groceries, your books, and all the other stuff that you need in your life. If the movies keep you engaged in the Amazon universe then they're happy. They will make original films for adults that appeal to just a certain audience. There's a certain audience that likes them. There may not be as many of them anymore, but there are some of them. They really care about passion, they care that a smaller number of people love the film. So, in that sense, making more original movies for adults makes sense. And that's why you see Amazon and Netflix making these kinds of movies. "The Big Sick" and "Manchester by the Sea," which are both original movies for adults, were acclaimed and successful on their own terms, but not movies that made profits that are relevant for a Warner Brothers or a Universal.  

"The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies" is available March 6.

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