Burning Question: How Do Studios Protect Their Films From Internet Hackers

Richard Rushfield
Features Editor
Movie Talk

Q:With so many movies being shot and edited digitally now, are studios tightening their security against hacking? How do they prevent all their works in progress from leaking out?

A: Sometimes it is nearly impossible. Just ask the hapless folks behind the final two installments of the "Twilight" movie series; if you were one of the Twihards who got to critique Bella Swan’s wedding dress online before her official wedding day of Echemendia, you had a leaker to thank for that.

Then there was Hugh Jackman, said to be “heartbroken” after his first solo Wolverine flick was briefly leaked a month before its box office debut in 2009.

And I should also mention "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith," "Hulk," "Iron Man," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "The Wolfman," "Sex and the City," "The Simpsons Movie" and "The Happening." Those movies all saw their scripts, photos or footage leaked ahead of official releases.

According to security specialists, studios, production companies and post-production houses really aren’t doing all that much to prevent such breaches. In fact, Ralph Echemendia, a digital security consultant and the lead investigator in the "Breaking Dawn" hacking case, tells that he gets calls from five to ten frantic entertainment-industry victims per month--folks whose, say, emails or Dropbox or YouSendIt accounts have been compromised.

“The industry is generally more reactive than anything right now,” Echemendia says.

Most hacks and leaks in Hollywood target people, not servers, which can make pre-emptive steps more difficult.

“Hackers will try to get victims to log into a phishing scheme by pretending to be a director or producer,” Echemendia explains. “Basically saying, ‘Here’s the latest cut, check it out.’ And then the victim enters a password on a Web site that looks like YouSendIt, and he’s just given up his password.

“That’s the majority of cases right now.” (In the "Breaking Dawn" break in, the hacker got a hold of the account that book creator Stephenie Meyer was using to view dailies from the film, Echemendia tells me.)

As for why these hackers like to spend so much time spoiling movies for other people, there’s actually quite a compelling reason: money. They threaten to leak footage or photos if a studio doesn’t hand over a stack of cash.

Or something, um, equally valuable?

“In the case of one leaker, all they wanted was an autographed picture of the person” at the center of an unreleased project, Echemendia says.

Did the would-be victims comply?

“Of course not,” Echemendia says. “This was a crazy fan. They were also in another country, and it wasn’t easy, but we did arrest them eventually.”

So. When you ask whether studios are protecting themselves against digital theft at the moment, the answer is: Apparently, no.