As curious journalists, tabloid writers, and Hollywood watchers pore over the massive trove of hacked Sony data, the public is being given a rare glimpse into the complicated world of Hollywood and politics. Tucked between bitchy emails about Angelina Jolie and snarky comments on Will Smith’s family are details of a chummy relationship between Sony executives and the CIA, as well as rare insight into how Hollywood views potential movies about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Sony’s plan to make a Snowden movie got rolling in January 2014, when Elizabeth Cantillon, then an executive producer at Sony, sent company Co-Chairman Amy Pascal an email saying she had successfully closed on the rights to the book, “No Place to Hide,” by The Intercept‘s founding editor, Glenn Greenwald. “[Y]ou will be my Oscar date,” Cantillon promised Pascal.
In March of 2014, Sony officially optioned the rights to Greenwald’s book, which chronicles how he broke the Snowden story, and moved forward with plans for a movie.
A month later, Pascal sent an email to a fellow Sony executive with the “fabulous slate” of tentative movie releases. The “Snowden movie” would be scheduled for 2016, between Pineapple Express 2 and the comic book film Bloodshot. Greenwald’s agreement with Sony gave him “creative input” and “final approval” on the press release for the movie.
A draft of the release was sent to a senior executive in Sony’s Government Affairs office, Keith Weaver, who offered a few “concerns/edits” before they were sent to Greenwald. Weaver was concerned about how Sony described U.S. government spying. Weaver wrote:
1. In the first sentence of the second paragraph – delete the phrase “illegal spying” and either it [sic] simply as “operations” or replace it with “intelligence gathering” — so the clause would read “U.S. government’s intelligence gathering operations.”
2. In the second sentence of the second paragraph — delete the “phrase misuse of power” and replace it with “actions” or “activities” so that it would read “The NSA’s actions” or “the NSA’S activities.”
Weaver was also concerned about how the draft quoted Greenwald as saying, “Growing up, I was heavily influenced by political films, and am excited about the opportunity to be a part of a political film that will resonate with today’s moviegoers.” Weaver, who would go on to be a key figure in the damage control team on Sony’s The Interview, wondered in the same email whether Sony wanted Greenwald to describe it as a “political film.”
“That’s really more of PR point so up to you guys — and I suspect since it is his own quote Greeenwald will feel strongly,” the Sony executive wrote.
The final version of the press release took Weaver’s suggestions on toning down the language on NSA, but let Greenwald’s quote stand (Greenwald, when asked about the emails, says he was “unaware, but am not surprised, that an internal Sony lobbyist diluted the press release draft in order to avoid upsetting the government.”)
By June, however, Sony’s plans hit a roadbump when a rival Snowden movie production was announced. Oliver Stone and his long-time producing partner Mortiz Borman acquired the rights to Luke Harding’s “The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man” and “Time of the Octopus,” a novel written by Snowden’s former lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena.
“[N]ow what?” Pascal asked Cantillon.
Cantillon tried to calm Pascal by comparing the competing projects to the race to make the Steve Jobs biopic. While Sony was squabbling over directors and lead actors, three independent production companies plowed ahead with Ashton Kutcher in the titular role.
“oliver stone is not aston kutcher [sic],” Pascal responded.
Pascal then reached out to “son of a news man” George Clooney, who replied that he had read Greenwald’s book:
I went through it and circled all the great moments that would make it a film. Grant and I both wanted so badly for this to be our next film. But if you use his book…. The best story is snowdon [sic]…Not journalism. And that story is already being made into a movie. And a few documentaries. Stone will do a hatchet job on the movie but it will still be the film of Snowdon….and even if we made a kick ass version it would be using all the same story points…
It honestly kills us that we can’t do this story…but we can’t. I’m with Grant right now in Big Sur and we talked through it for days. We just can’t
I’m really bummed. We’ll find something. Please don’t stop looking for us.
Over the spring and summer, Sony worked on its Snowden script, but in November, Stone’s version of the Snowden story was picked up by Open Road as a distributor (Open Road is owned by AMC theaters and Regal Entertainment). Adding insult to the injury, Sony was pitched on distributing the Stone movie to foreign territories. Steven Bersch, head of Sony’s Worldwide Acquisitions, wrote to Pascal and fellow executive Doug Belgrad asking whether he should bid, given that the company was considering its own project.
Belgrad finally conceded defeat. “This will beat our Snowden project to market and therefore ours is unlikely to happen,” he wrote. “We ended up passing after seriously considering the project.”
Greenwald, however, says he believes the movie is still going forward, and Sony is sending a screenwriter to Brazil to meet with him in January.
As for any difficulties of working with Sony, Greenwald says the benefits of working with a large studio like Sony “is that a message can reach huge numbers of people who don’t read political discussions and thus shape how an entire generation thinks – as ‘All the Presidents Men’ did.”
For now, Greenwald remains hopeful. “I assume the battles with fearful, pro-government Sony executives will come later,” he said.
Micah Lee and Ryan Gallagher contributed to the analysis of this report.