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Amy Pascal steps down from Sony Pictures in wake of damaging email hack

Amy Pascal, one of Hollywood’s most powerful movie executives, is stepping down as head of Sony Pictures in the wake of a hacking scandal that resulted in her private and damaging emails being leaked.

Pascal was targeted by hacking group Guardians of Peace, a group linked by the US government to North Korea. Late last year, the hackers released a slew of emails including one exchange in which she traded racist jokes about Barack Obama. Sony said the co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment is launching “a new production venture” backed by the studio and will start the new job in May. “I have spent almost my entire professional life at Sony Pictures and I am energised to be starting this new chapter based at the company I call home,” she said in a statement. She said she had been discussing the move for “quite some time”. 

Pascal, the only woman currently heading a Hollywood studio, has long been one of the industry’s most powerful and successful executives. She began her career at Columbia Pictures in 1988, developing pictures including Groundhog Day and A League of Their Own. She rose through the ranks to be named co-chair of Sony Pictures in 2006, making her the most senior female executive in Hollywood. 

Pascal counts the blockbuster Spider-man franchise and the latest James Bond movies among the many hits under her tenure as well as Oscar nominees American Hustle, The Social Network and Zero Dark Thirty

But her reputation took a hit after the hackers leaked emails she had sent to fellow executives in an attempt to force Sony to scrap The Interview, a comedy depicting the assassination of Kim Jong-un. Among them were racially insensitive emails between Pascal and producer Scott Rudin joking that Obama’s favorite films are black-themed movies like Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave

Discussing an upcoming fundraiser for the president Rudin wrote: “Would he like to finance some movies?” Pascal wrote back, “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked DJANGO?” Rudin responded with “12 YEARS,” and Pascal came back with other films starring African Americans: “Or the butler. Or think like a man? [sic].” 

In other leaked emails Rudin called Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat” as the two discussed Cleopatra, a movie Jolie was keen to develop. When Pascal met Jolie at the Hollywood Reporter Women in Entertainment breakfast following the leak, the actress appeared to repel an awkward embrace by the studio boss in front of the awaiting cameras. 

Pascal later issued an apology for remarks made in the leaked emails. “The content of my emails to Scott were insensitive and inappropriate but are not an accurate reflection of who I am,” Pascal wrote in a statement. “Although this was a private communication that was stolen, I accept full responsibility for what I wrote and apologize to everyone who was offended.” 

Pascal has now become the most senior head to roll following the hack that strained relations between the studio and stars and other employees whose salaries, social security numbers and other personal information were leaked alongside other highly embarrassing emails. The reputational damage to the studio has been after greater than the financial one. On Wednesday Sony said that after taking account of its insurance policies the hack would cost the company just $15m. 

In an interview with Hollywood website Deadline after the scandal broke, Pascal said she had been devastated by the hack. “Everyone at this company has been violated and nobody here deserved this,” she said. “I am mostly disappointed in myself. That is the element of this that has been most painful for me. I don’t want to be defined by these emails, after a 30-year career,” she said. “Clearly, there are things that you say in a rash moment without thinking them through, and it takes 10 seconds to say something stupid. When it’s blasted and it might become the way you are defined as a human being, I have to say it. It’s just wrong. It’s wrong about me. And it’s wrong to do to anyone.” 

Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures and Pascal’s co-chair, said he was “delighted” Sony would continue to work with Pascal. “Amy’s creativity, drive and bold choices helped define SPE as a studio where talented individuals could take chances and push boundaries in order to deliver outstanding entertainment,” he said. “The studio’s legacy is in large part due to to Amy’s passion for storytelling and love of this industry,” he said. Pascal’s contract was due to expire in March. 

The new deal lasts four years and Pascal is likely to oversee the making of some of Sony’s biggest movies. Pascal got her first job by answering an ad in the Hollywood Reporter and worked as a secretary for BBC producer Tony Garnett, famous for his work with director Ken Loach. She is the first woman since Mary Pickford, the actress and co-founder of United Artists, to serve as a governor of the executive branch at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015

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