September 11, 2011
Hollywood Leaks Strikes Fear Into Studio Bosses
Behind the feelgood story lines and happy endings of even the most bland Hollywood movies lurks a formidable PR machine that exerts a grip on every aspect of a film's life. From keeping scripts secret, to vetting press interviews with stars, setting embargoes and filming on closed sets, big Hollywood studios jealously guard their projects. After all, hundreds of millions of dollars are often at stake. One slip-up can kill a movie – and a dead movie usually takes a few careers with it.
So it is with growing horror that the movie business and its galaxy of celebrities have witnessed the emergence of a group of computer "hacktivists" dedicated to cracking open Hollywood's most valuable secrets and releasing them for all the world to see. Calling themselves Hollywood Leaks, the anonymous hackers have stolen scripts for coming movies, revealed nude photos of celebrities and placed their personal phone numbers and email contacts on the internet for all the world to see.
Its victims have included action star Gerard Butler, whose email address was put online, and Miley Cyrus, the singer and actress, whose personal details were also hacked. The script from the upcoming Tom Cruise movie Rock of Ages, also starring Malin Akerman and Julianne Hough, was leaked. As have scripts for the forthcoming Footloose remake and eagerly awaited crime drama Gangster Squad, whose roster of big names includes Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling.
Hollywood Leaks has sprung from the underground world of computer hacking that has already produced groups like Anonymous and LulzSec, whose targets have ranged from the CIA and the US Senate to companies such as PayPal and Bank of America. Those attacks often have a freedom of information agenda with a political slant, but Hollywood Leaks appears different. It just wants to destroy the carefully constructed Hollywood information system that has grown up since the movie business first exploded into popular culture in the 1920s. Using gaping holes in the major studios' computer networks, Hollywood Leaks is on a mission to upset an entire industry's way of doing business.
Hollywood studios often force journalists and reviewers to sign ferocious non-disclosure agreements when they get sneak previews of upcoming movies. They ban certain questions and declare personal lives off-limits. They take elaborate security precautions to ensure no pertinent details leak out ahead of time. And when they do want to hint at a movie's content – such as with a big special effects feature like James Cameron's Avatar – it is by tightly controlled releases of photographs or clips that they themselves control.
Gayl Murphy, a Los Angeles-based celebrity interviewer, knows all about the system first-hand. She recalled being sent DVDs that would only play on a certain DVD player, which she was also sent. Viewing them on any other device, or making copies, was rendered impossible. "These guys are very serious about what they do," Murphy said.
They have been from the very beginning. As the studio system emerged in the 1920s, a new breed of film executives discovered huge monetary potential in their films, stars and even composers and costume designers. By the heyday of the 1930s and 1940s, studios bound their big-name actors and directors with tight contracts that virtually made them a property of the company. It was almost total control. Stars promoted products because they were told to, appeared in magazines next to copy written by studio PRs and even dated other stars as instructed.
"Studios controlled everything and everyone, as best as any corporation could control individuals. Contracts ruled everything and if you were under contract to a studio you were, in essence, owned by them and you did what you were told to do," said Professor Marsha Orgeron, a film history expert at North Carolina State University.
Though the power of the studios waned as the contract system broke down, the basic philosophy of strict message control has remained. Big-budget movies became huge money-making machines, often with secretive commercial tie-ins, and with a strictly controlled PR message. After all, a movie is not like any other product. You buy a fridge or a car or a TV because it will work. You buy a movie ticket to be told a story, and knowing the ending ahead of time, or having seen its stars' personal details splashed all over the internet, shatters the carefully constructed aura of the experience. "The difference between Hollywood and other industries has to do with the monetary stakes, which are extraordinary, and the nature of the product," said Orgeron. Hollywood Leaks now threatens the mystique and mythology at the very heart of the movie business and thus also puts at risk its huge profits.
Of course, the dirty secret of Hollywood studios and the most powerful PR agencies is that they often love a good leak. While stars may rail against the paparazzi, the fact remains that many PRs – and some of their more desperate clients – will happily tip off a photographer. There is a reason why celebrities return to the same restaurants and clubs night after night, and it is not out of a desire for secrecy. Indeed little has changed since the old days. Nothing creates more publicity – especially with a romantic comedy – than the rumour that the leading stars may have had an on-set romance. Such leaks, often sanctioned by the studio and frequently not true, are good for business. "There is no activity that Hollywood marketing executives will not do," said Laermer. So leaks themselves are not always bad. But what is terrifying for movie executives, PR agents, celebrities and studio heads is the lack of control that Hollywood Leaks is suddenly bringing into the process. Injecting an anarchic hacker philosophy into one of the most carefully managed industries in the world is a nightmare come true. "That is going to drive the studios insane," said Murphy.
Which, for Hollywood Leaks, is the point. The unknown hackers behind the group have sprung from a hacktivist culture that celebrates the concept of "lulz", which is tech slang for amoral mischief and creating havoc outside normal societal boundaries. They would defend their actions as an anarchic statement. Critics would see it as simple cruelty or criminality driven by a culture dominated by antisocial geeks. On the group's Twitter feed, updates urge followers to call the celebrity phone numbers released. "People can't take a damn joke. We do it for the lulz," reads one tweet. The motto of the group is: "We do not forget. We do not forgive. Expect us."
In online exchanges with tech journalists investigating the group, some of Hollywood Leaks' members have done little to cast light on its simple chaos-sowing agenda. "We're doin' it cause we can, cause it's fun, cause why not? Fuck Hollywood – fuck that vapid greedy bullshit," one hacktivist, going by the name Dapper, told Fruzsina Eordogh, a writer for the Daily Dot online news website.
Eordogh said her contact with three members of the group had persuaded her that they had little agenda beyond having fun and causing trouble. "They view this hacking of Hollywood as somewhat benign. Not very harmful. They don't feel they are going to get in trouble with anyone," Eordogh told the Observer. That might be naive. Hollywood studios employ some of the wealthiest and most ruthless lawyers in the world. But what appears certain is that the internet, which has already undermined the news business, publishing and the music industry, is now knocking on the door of Hollywood too. Maybe even kicking it down. In its own way it is a classic Hollywood plot twist, though one that some experts think the business should have seen coming.
"They thought that it could never happen to them," said Murphy.
RUNNING THE SHOW
During the Golden Age of Hollywood the "studio system" emerged whereby nearly all popular films in America were made by a handful of studios on their own lots, with staff under long-term contracts. This gave studios immense control over their projects and the lives of their top actors.
The studio system finally broke up under pressure from a federal anti-trust lawsuit and the decision by the billionaire Howard Hughes, who part-owned the RKO studio, to break up his business. Actress Lucille Ball, left, quipped: "I regret the passing of the studio system. I was very appreciative of it because I had no talent."
The modern world of Hollywood guards its future movie projects and its stars' reputations every bit as forcefully. Stars and studios employ legions of PR executives and masters of spin.
Hollywood is a master of dirty tricks, especially when it comes to money. The writer of the novel on which the hit film Forrest Gump was based was entitled to a share of net profits on the movie. Yet creative accounting methods kept the film from making any money for years.
Hollywood feeds on itself. TMZ, the website renowned for its relentless pursuit of the stars, is owned by Time Warner, which also owns the studio New Line Cinema.