Sony, again in the crosshairs, defends 'Concussion' as hard-hitting

Nearly a year after the devastating hacking attack that leaked thousands of emails, Sony Pictures Entertainment again finds itself trying to justify its own inner dealings, this time over the upcoming Will Smith film about head trauma and the NFL, "Concussion."

The question surrounds just how hard-hitting is "Concussion," a film due out in December that dramatizes the forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who uncovered the fatal effects that repeated head trauma has had on many NFL players. After a New York Times report on Tuesday based on leaked emails that Sony blunted parts of the film to avoid upsetting the NFL, Sony hit back on Wednesday.

In a statement, Sony Pictures called the Times story "misleading" and noted it was written without the benefit of seeing the film.

"As will become immediately clear to anyone actually seeing the movie, nothing with regard to this important story has been 'softened' to placate anyone," said Sony.

Claims that "Concussion" was altered to appease the NFL proved inconclusive following an Associated Press review of the leaked Sony emails regarding the production and positioning of the film.

Instead, the exchanges between Sony Pictures Entertainment executives, lawyers, external consultants and filmmaker Peter Landesman paint a less definitive picture of the behind-the-scenes motivations of script changes and strategy.

"We always intended to make an entertaining, hard-hitting film about Dr. Omalu's David-and-Goliath story, which played out like a Hollywood thriller," said Landesman in a statement to the AP. "Anyone who sees the movie will know that it never once compromises the integrity and the power of the real story."

While the emails reflect near-constant hand-wringing about NFL backlash, which prompted Sony to hire an independent consultant to manage the communications strategy within the massive organization, the emails also show a rigorous obsession with depicting real people and events with accuracy and fairness. That's not an uncommon practice for any fact-based movie — especially one with awards aspirations.

In early July 2014, Sony executive Hannah Minghella sent page notes to a group of executives from a pre-greenlight meeting. "Rather than portray the NFL as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the NFL who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth."

Landesman has acknowledged a scene featuring NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was cut from the film. Emails suggest that at one point, he tried to reach out to an NFL executive with the hope of getting more insight into a closed door conversation he hoped to dramatize in the film.

Later in July, Sony chairman Michael Lynton emailed then-co-chair Amy Pascal. "Aimee Wolfson took out most of the bite for legal reasons with the NFL and that it was not a balance issue," Lynton wrote of Sony's top lawyer.

Concerns were motivated not just by the threat of recourse from the NFL, but in antagonizing the enormous potential audience of movie-going football fans. Emails show planning to promote Smith as "pro-football."

In October, Doug Belgrad, president of Sony's motion picture unit, wrote to a group of executives reiterating their need to fact-check: "If we fudge or embellish the NFL's actions on this issue, it could compromise the success of our pic," he said.

Ultimately, despite the unprecedented glimpse into these internal dealings, more questions are raised than answered as to whether the development and marketing of "Concussion" is at all different from any other production about a hot-button issue. The leaked emails ran up until December, so they don't cover the last nine months.

The film's trailer, which debuted Monday, portrays the NFL as a foreboding opposition to Omalu's heroic whistle-blowing. In it, he's warned: "You're going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week."

A handful of football reporters and broadcasters who have seen "Concussion," which opens in December, have backed up Sony's defense of the film.

NBC's Bob Costas, in a statement supplied by Sony, said: "It doesn't appear to me many punches were pulled." Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who has also seen the film, called it "a huge black eye for the NFL."

The NFL has declined to comment on the film, which will hit theaters in the heart of its upcoming season. It's not believed to have any business relationship with Sony.

Jeff Miller, NFL senior vice president of health and safety policy, has said the league is "encouraged by the ongoing focus" on player safety.


Bahr reported from Los Angeles.


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