Monthly Archives: December 2014

Was It Worth All The Fuss?

Image courtesy of AOL

Image courtesy of AOL

It may be the worst movie to have ever received this much advance attention or publicity. And in the end, it may have been at the center of the costliest corporate data breach since the great Target retail hack of 2013. Was all the fuss over The Interview worth it?  And where does Sony Pictures go from here?  One in a series of articles about cyber-security and freedom of the press:

Pulp Fiction Turns Twenty

Image courtesy of Miramax Films

Image courtesy of Miramax Films

Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton examines Pulp Fiction as it reaches its 20th anniversary, a transformative and game-changing film which fractured the ossified rules of Hollywood at the time.  The movie also gave actor Bruce Willis redirection, made a star out of Samuel L. Jackson, and harkened the return of John Travolta in what became the most famous comeback in Tinseltown history. Read the full article at:

Washington Divided on CIA Interrogations

capitol sky

Thursday Review looks at the troubling, bitter divide in Washington over the release of a 528-page Senate report on the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques in the aftermath of 9/11. Did the CIA engage in torture? Or were its methods acceptable for a society seeking security from terrorism and attack? See more:

Orion is Older Than You Think

Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Thursday Review looks at the long history of the Orion missions; these deep space voyage plans date back decades, to a time even before Gemini or Apollo. Are long-distance manned space voyages on the horizon? See more:

Ashton Carter: The Safest Selection for White House

Photo: U.S. Navy/Department of Defense

Photo: U.S. Navy/Department of Defense

Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton looks at the White House choice of Ashton Carter to replace current U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel.  An examination of Carter’s skills and record, and why he may have been the safest choice for an embattled President Obama. See more at:

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Pena Nieto Campaign

Published November 30, 2014: Can Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto turn back the tide of violence and corruption which has become such an integral part of the nation’s social and political fabric? Thursday Review’s Alan Clanton looks at the challenges Mexico must overcome if it is to return to a viable force in the global economy. Read more: Once Upon a Time in Mexico; Thursday Review Front Page article.

Movie Heist: Did North Korea Hack Sony Pictures?

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The production, marketing and release of major motion pictures are monumentally costly undertakings. Many millions are spent—sometimes $25, $30, $40 million or more—just on filming, editing and talent. The studios have an expectation that these movies, once projected onto big screens across the world, will rake in at least a modest profit.

In fact, the business model has evolved so completely over the last two decades that few films reach the shooting stage without first being subjected to a long, grueling process of approval by the powers-that-be. In the corporate model which now dominates the movie industry, few films reach the theaters without first being carefully measured for their capacity to make money for the studio, the parent company, and the stockholders.

So when word of the massive theft at Sony Pictures—a hack job which resulted in a dozen movies being digitally offloaded in their entirety—hit the streets of Hollywood and New York, it sent a shudder through the spines of anyone and everyone who has ever worked in the film business. The data breach at Sony Pictures resulted in, among other things, a premature online release of the new movie Annie. Annie was not scheduled for theatrical release until close to Christmas. Now, by conservative estimates, the movie has already been downloaded half a million times since the security breach was discovered less than one week ago. In fact, Annie is being downloaded at the rate of 500 units per minute worldwide even as you read this article. By tomorrow, industry analysts suggest, Annie will be available—for free—to more than 2 million viewers.

Sony has enlisted the FBI, as well as the services of several expensive private security teams to analyze the breach and halt the digital hemorrhage. But for Annie, the damage may already be financially catastrophic.

But Annie was not exactly the true target, at least according to some theories. In one of those strange cases of life imitating art—or vice-versa (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference which comes first)—and politics imitating comedy (think of Saturday Night Live’s uncanny parody of the failure of the health care website rollout)—North Korean hackers may, and we stress may, have been directly responsible for the security breach at Sony. The reason? Sony was weeks away from the release of a fictional comedic take on the political thriller called The Interview, a story in which two American guys—posing as amateur web journalists—are sent by the CIA across the DMZ into North Korea with the task of assassinating the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. The movie stars Seth Rogen and James Franco.

Sony Pictures has multiple teams of security clean-up crews fixing the damage caused by the breach. In addition to the theft of digital copies of entire motion pictures—at least five of which have already been downloaded millions of times within the last few days—the hackers also crashed most of Sony’s computer system, disrupting databases and making email delivery and receipt impossible. Sony has hired contractor Fire Eye’s “Mandiant” crew to repair the damage and get all systems back online, but it may take a few more days before all loopholes are closed and all network operations are back to normal. Sources inside Sony have revealed to some in the media that the security breach, in terms of cost and scale, may be bigger than last year’s Target hack, or this year’s massive Home Depot data breach.

Though law enforcement has not made any comment publicly on where it is looking, dozens of sources—both those with knowledge of the FBI and those with direct connections inside Sony—have indicated that the cyber-attack may have been retribution by North Korean techies in the service of Kim Jong-un, who has called the farcical movie “an act of war” and an “aggressive form of cultural attack.”

When the computer system crashed last week, employees at Sony say that most screens displayed a dark red skull with the words “hacked by #GOP.” And no, that’s not the Grand Old Party we think of generally as Republicans, but a group allegedly calling itself the “Guardians of Peace.” In the meantime, as thousands of people in the business world and the Hollywood movie industry have noted, emails sent to Sony Pictures employees are immediately bounced back. In the meantime, all Sony business is being conducted old school: by phone, by fax, or by Xerox machine.

Can North Korea claim victory on this attack? Neither the FBI nor other law enforcement agencies are commenting—at least in specific ways—but there have plenty of indications that U.S. agencies ae looking directly at North Korea as the perpetrator of the attack. According to several major news sources, law enforcement officials who are speaking off-the-record say that the Sony cyber-heist has Pyongyang’s thumbprints all over it. One can only assume that the damage is real and measurable, especially when calibrated by the revenue apparently lost because of films prematurely released online. Besides the new Annie, the other films apparently stolen in the breach include Mrs. Turner and Fury. Fury, a war movie, directed by David Ayer and starring Brad Pitt and Shia LeBeouf, opened in theaters last month, but the illegal downloads of it also reached the thousands per hour as of this past weekend. According to the film website IMDb, Fury has already grossed about $82 million. But the illegal downloads may quickly suppress future profits.

Sony Pictures’ data breach would be the largest such single cyber-attack to hit a major motion picture studio.

North Korea has made no official comment on the brouhaha. But many in both the foreign policy arena, as well as the movie business, recall that the isolated country—which sits north of the demilitarized zone established by the United Nations at the end of military hostilities more than 50 years ago—was not amused by the thought of an American-made movie about the assassination of its dear leader, parody or otherwise. In June 2014, a spokesperson for the North Korean government declared that all North Koreans were being challenged to “mercilessly destroy anyone who dares hurt or harm the supreme leadership of the country…even one bit.” Serious words. Except that those who follow the daily narrative from Pyongyang know that such harsh language is par for the course, as it were.

Like its larger neighbor to its north and west (China), and like the rogue Iran, North Korea has established a specialized military unit whose sole purpose is cyber-warfare. This brigade of 1500 techies—dressed in army uniforms (unlike their counterparts in California in blue jeans and black t-shirts)—is tasked with engaging in digital battle, and it is empowered to ignore web etiquette and international law. In North Korea, this cyber-warrior battalion is called Unit 121. Some U.S. security experts have suggested that the Sony Pictures data breach has all the markings of an attack by the loyal shock troops of Unit 121.

Ironically, North Korea has one of the tiniest internet footprints in the world. By some estimates, less than one percent of its population has any internet access at all. Those with web access are either top military, high government officials, or those members of Unit 121—and even then web access is greatly limited and activities closely monitored. North Korea’s small internet footprint means that proof of its authorship or sponsorship of the attack will be difficult, and retaliation may be close to impossible.

North Korea has a tradition of being easily riled, and many experts say that if the data breach at Sony turns out to have its roots in Pyongyang, it may be an indication of more trouble for American companies in the future. North Korea has been the chief suspect in several cyber-attacks against banks and financial companies in South Korea in recent years, as well as in a major cyber-attack on South Korean television and radio broadcasters in 2013.

Security experts and law enforcement say that cyber-attacks and data heists are what crime will look like for the foreseeable future. Gone are the days of guys with guns hijacking trucks carrying reels of film, boxes of videotapes or stacks of CDs. In the place of this kind of strong arm crime is a new kind of criminal who uses the computer to steal digital data. Since much of the motion picture industry is moving toward fully digital production and editing processes, this means that the heist at Sony Pictures may be the first of many to come.
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The Best of Cellars: The Early Beatles & Brian Epstein

Photo courtesy of Capitol Records/EMI

Photo courtesy of Capitol Records/EMI

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor

Liverpool, England was the epicenter of a vibrant music scene in 1961. At many venues around the city, groups and solo acts played to lunchtime crowds as well as late-night audiences. The performances were noted for the eager musicianship and the wide variety of musical sources, though nearly all of them were all-out rock-and-roll oriented.

Rock had become the music de jure in Liverpool after the passing of the skiffle craze. Skiffle was popular for a few years because in order to play it, a group did not need formal instruments. Because England was still under wartime rationing, money was in short supply as well. Skiffle music could be produced with washboards, buckets and homemade guitars which cost little or nothing to make, utilizing materials laying around one’s house. Liverpool was one of England’s major port cities and the crews of foreign ships which took cargo in and out of the port brought with them various cultural influences. American ships brought in music, largely in the form of LP record albums which the merchant seamen often sold at record shops throughout the city. The records brought the music of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran as well as blues and jazz. As rock replaced skiffle, budding groups began incorporating all these influences into their repertoires. Some, of course, did this more successfully than others.

There were approximately 300 rock bands in Liverpool in the autumn of 1961. One of the most popular groups was called The Beatles. The group had gone through different names and identities (The Quarrymen, The Beat Brothers) while trying to establish itself as a major force on the local music scene. The Beatles played all over Liverpool and once performed in front of an audience of under ten people. They were becoming well-known in the city for their frenetic style as well as their volume and sheer energy. People were recognizing that the group possessed an undefined “it” factor that was setting them apart from other groups. Although they were the most popular band in Liverpool by late 1961, they were still unknown outside of their home city. Their ambition, talent—and lunchtime encounter—would soon propel them into the stratosphere.

During their early years, the Beatles performed and developed as musicians without the aid of proper management. At various times they had been managed, loosely, by Mona Best, the mother of their original drummer, Pete Best. Allan Williams, the owner of two Liverpool dance clubs, also booked performance dates for the Beatles. Williams’ business interests kept him from full-time management but he also considered the group unreliable because of their chronic tardiness to gigs. Their career depended on a dedicated, full-time manager.

One venue at which the Beatles frequently played was the Cavern Club, located at 10 Mathew Street. The Cavern opened as a jazz club in 1957 but was purchased by Ray McFall in 1959. Under McFall’s ownership, Bob Wooler was hired as the compere and the cavern became a rock-and-roll venue. Wooler began booking more prominent acts and he raised the Cavern’s profile. The club also became known for its raucous lunchtime sessions. Wooler welcomed the crowd by announcing “Welcome Cavern dwellers. Welcome to the best of cellars!” The space occupied by the Cavern had been an old cellar.

One of the groups booked at the Cavern was the Beatles. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had played at the Cavern in 1958 as the Quarrymen, when the venue was still a jazz club with a limited rock program. The Beatles first appearance at the Cavern was February 9, 1961. They had returned from three months in Hamburg, Germany, honing their craft and developing their stage presence. They were building a reputation as great live performers and regularly packed the Cavern’s lunchtime sessions. Standing room only became the norm.

On November 9, 1961, Wooler announced the presence of a visitor to the Cavern. Many in the young crowd recognized Brian Epstein, the operator of NEMS (North End Music Stores), a family-owned business in Liverpool, on Great Charlotte Street. The young people who frequented the Cavern also liked to hang out in the NEMS store, listening to the latest records, many of which were by American artists. Epstein took pride in being able to acquire records considered difficult to find, or obscure, so his store was popular with music fans.

Brian Epstein was 27 years old when he met the Beatles. He had worked successfully for several years in the family business but had become bored and restless. Epstein was looking for something different in his life and he had just crossed paths with the Beatles. According to Beatles lore, Epstein first heard of the Beatles when a teen-ager named Raymond Jones walked into NEMS and requested a record—“My Bonnie,” by Tony Sheridan, featuring a backup band called the Beatles. Sheridan was a musician and guitarist from Norwich, England, who had gained popularity in Hamburg, Germany. Sheridan had been offered a contract by German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. “My Bonnie” was recorded in June, 1961, and on the record’s label the Beatles were identified as the “Beat Brothers.” However, the Jones story may not be entirely true. The Beatles were already creating a buzz among Liverpool youth by the fall of 1961, so it’s reasonable to assume Epstein had heard other conversations about them in his store.

Like other aspiring groups, the Beatles were seeking fame and fortune. In the early 1960’s, that meant securing a record contract. However, the British music scene was dominated by acts signed out of London. Although the Beatles were well known among Liverpool youth, they were unknown in the rest of Britain. They believed their career would stagnate, and they would never break out of Liverpool, unless they secured proper management.

Brian Epstein had seen NEMS business grow to the point that his father, Harry, was considering expanding it and opening additional stores. NEMS’ record departments were booming, largely due to Brian’s hard work and business acumen. The Epsteins were sitting on a potential retail empire. Brian worked diligently at NEMS largely out of family loyalty and expectations and could be called a successful, up-and-coming businessman. Nevertheless, Brian felt that his life was stagnating. He had grown up beset with insecurity and struggled with his identity. As an adolescent, Brian had begun struggling with the fact that he was attracted to boys. By the time he was twenty, Brian had admitted to himself that he was homosexual. By throwing himself into the family business, he tried to please his parents and find a way to be “normal.” Success at NEMS failed to alleviate Brian’s inner conflicts or unhappiness. He was looking for something else to do with his life. Once Brian met the Beatles and saw them perform, he decided to take a gigantic leap of faith.

Brian was attracted to the impulsive, restless nature of the performances he witnessed at the Cavern, as well as the reckless spontaneity he witnessed in the onstage presence of the Beatles. It was an image wholly opposite his own buttoned-down life and Brian was mesmerized. By early December, 1961, Brian decided to offer himself to the group as their manager.

The first formal meeting occurred on December 3 in Brian’s office. Bob Wooler had accompanied the Beatles as a friend and unofficial advisor. The Beatles were nervous but anxious to hear what Brian had to say. At first, they engaged in small talk, with Brian telling the group how much he enjoyed their performances and complimenting them on the local interest in “My Bonnie.” Eventually, Brian got to the point and offered to manage the group. He gave the appearance of being noncommittal and encouraged the Beatles to think about his offer, which contained nothing specific as of yet. The Beatles were highly flattered that someone successful and well-connected like Brian Epstein took an interest in them. They realized this might be the break they needed.

When Brian informed his parents of his decision to dive into management of a pop group, they were not only skeptical, but also upset, especially his father. Harry Epstein regarded it as a harebrained scheme that would ultimately come to naught. Brian’s mother was more optimistic, but she also realized that the young Brian probably could not be talked out of it. Brian told his father that he would continue to work at the store while acting as the Beatles manager on a part-time basis. It was largely through Brian’s efforts that NEMS had grown to become one of the biggest musical retail outlets in England.

Further meetings between Brian and the group occurred on December 6 and 10. The Beatles decided as a group to accept Brian’s offer of management. They had already begun to trust him and they were confident that Brian could open the necessary doors to ignite their career. But there was a slight hitch in the plan; three of the group’s members—Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best—were underage, so any management contract they entered into needed the consent of parents. Pete’s mother, Mona Best and George’s parents, Harry and Louise Harrison, were enthusiastic from the beginning and gave their consent quickly. Paul’s father, Jim McCartney, was skeptical, but eventually gave in to Paul’s pleadings. Having always harbored misgivings about her nephew’s chosen career as a musician, John’s aunt, Mimi Smith, was also deeply skeptical. As his guardian, her biggest fear was that Brian Epstein would eventually lose interest in the Beatles, and John would be cut adrift. However, John had turned 21 in October, so he could legally sign a contract on his own—without permission of his aunt.

The Beatles signed a management contract with Brian Epstein on January 24, 1962. According to the document’s terms, Brian would receive 10-15% of the group’s income, depending on how much they earned. Brian would undertake to manage their business and financial affairs, as well as their tour schedule. His primary goal was to land the group a proper recording contract, but as a secondary task he had to free them from a few constraints left in place by a contract they had signed with Bert Kaempfert back in Hamburg during the brief period when the Beatles with associated with Tony Sheridan. Once those legal issues were resolved, Epstein began promoting the group aggressively, and he soon secured an audition for the group with Decca Records at their West Hampstead Studios on January 1, 1962.

Members of the group were thrilled, but they were also nervous and filled with self-doubt; would their presence, infectious energy, and natural charisma onstage transfer to acetate? Nevertheless, the group performed fifteen songs during a one-hour “artist test.” The numbers were a representative cross-section of the upbeat songs the group played during live performances.

But, upon conclusion of the audition session, Decca’s immediate response was “we’ll get back to you….” Decca offered what would become one of the most famous rejections of all time by intoning that “guitar bands are on the way out.” The incident seemed to pose the question: Where would the Beatles go from here?

Still, Epstein remained tireless, and in February—only a few months after the Decca rejection—Epstein brokered a meeting with producer George Martin, and the boys were soon signed to EMI’s Parlophone Records. Martin sensed something special in the band, and in June 1962 put them into a recording studio—where the first order of business became replacing drummer Pete Best with the more accomplished Ringo Starr, at that time a member of Rory Storm & the Hurricanes. If Pete Best was the weak link musically, Ringo was that missing bit of chemistry that rounded out the group’s energetic sound and stage personality. New drummer in place, the Beatles recorded “Love Me Do” on September 4, 1962. Two months later, at EMI’s Abbey Road recording studio in London, the Beatles recorded “Please Please Me,” a song Martin predicted with uncanny accuracy would rocket to number one.

“Please Please Me” became the title of their first album—a collection of songs released in spring 1963. Among those tunes was the catchy “She Loves You,” a song which would move quickly to number one in the U.S. and the U.K., and would set an all-time sales record by selling an astonishing 765,000 copies in only four weeks. Weeks later, it would become the Beatles first million seller, the first of more than a dozen chart-toppers in those early years, and the start of a run of number one hits that would break every record in musical history.

Epstein’s lunchtime encounter with the Beatles—in that former wine cellar—changed the trajectory not only for a young, ambitious band manager and an up-and-coming rock and roll group, but redefined the concept of the “guitar band” so easily dismissed by the music executives at Decca.

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