It’s the hack still being heard around the world, a surreal situation made even more bizarre by the reaction of the target and the accompanying response from the community. Before Sony succumbed to the pressure put on it by a shadowy group known only as the “Guardians of Peace”, which led to the studio pulling the proposed Seth Rogen/James Franco political comedy The Interview from distribution, it was simply dealing with the collective face egg that comes from your private corporate business becoming Reddit fodder.
Now, by taking the $80 million hit and shelving the film indefinitely (yep, no VOD or DVD/Blu-ray plans as of right now), the suits hope to see some light at the end of this still dark and ever-expanding tunnel. By complying with the so-called “terrorist” demands (the cancelling of The Interview has been the Guardians’ number one “request”) and keeping the film from audiences, the studio has decided that safety trumps profits. Sounds reasonable, right? Absolutely. It also sounds like a potential deep pocket party attempting to cover its ass (and legal liability) while setting a dangerous precedent when it comes to artistic expression, censorship, and free speech.
Granted, we are (supposedly) dealing with North Korea here, a deranged dictatorship where previous despots have claimed near magical powers as part of their closed-off totalitarian reign. The late Kim Jong-il was known to claim such accomplishments as the writing of 1,500 books while in college and an insane ability at the game of golf. The subject of the sensational spoof Team America: World Police from South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the former dictator was said to be a major league film fan, owning thousands of videotapes while severely restricting his citizens access to same.
When he died, his youngest son Kim Jong-un was announced as his successor. An equally mysterious figure, it is claimed that he shares his father’s love of basketball (remember when Dennis Rodman became an unlikely ambassador for the sport, and the West?) as well as a desire to make his nation a supreme global power. Thanks to massive militarization and what some see as an itchy trigger finger on his nation’s nukes, he’s not a leader that Washington takes lightly. On the other hand, most of his threats have been nothing more than bombast, the braying of an isolated man trying to define his meaning within a world that’s rapidly progressing past him.
Now, thanks to an alleged organization with an equally tenuous link to the country, Sony has said it won’t release a multi-million dollar movie. The reason? Well, the fictional film sees a couple of TV dupes (Rogen and Franco) take the CIA up on their offer and agree to kill Kim Jong-un (played by an actor, of course) during an unprecedented one-on-one sit-down with the leader. The few critics who were lucky/unlucky enough to see the final result said the comedy was funny, if uneven, and quite violent. The Guardians, on the other hand, saw it as a grand insult and went about deconstructing the studios various computer based secrets in retaliation. Then came the real threats.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve learned a lot about Hollywood. We’ve learned that studio heads love to ridicule their talent, even if most of their email missives look like they were written by seven year olds. We also discovered that a woman doing the same job as a man there earns $1 million less because… well, because the ’50s, that’s why. Medical records, Social security numbers, banking and other personal information? All leaked in hundreds of pages of documents. We also learned that once you invoke 9/11 and threaten to hurt people as part of the movie-going experience, Tinseltown folds like a cheap beach chair.
Of course, no one wants violence or death. It would be unconscionable for Sony to let The Interview play and, on the off chance, some group targets a middle America Cineplex and injures/kills a bunch of people, the backlash would be titanic. Even now, without anything remotely close to this happening, some are predicting that Sony will not survive this PR nightmare. Imagine adding a body count to it. Of course, the equally popular NSA argues that any threat from North Korea/Guardians of Whatever is not “credible”, but as with most decisions in darkened board rooms, when someone screams “liability”, the big wigs punt.
But here’s the problem: agenda-based decisions are never wise. If you tell a nation of cartoon villains that they can have whatever they want just as long as they sound really pissed off about it and invoke one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the United States, it’s just a matter of time before others follow suit. Don’t like the way your survivalist organization is depicted in a film? Get riled up and threaten the studio. Want more pro-God content in your popcorn entertainment? Make demands and promise retaliation if they are not met. Want to change the way you or your country/culture are depicted on screen? Get some computer wiz to hack the source’s mainframe and release embarrassingly worded and grammatically suspect (and, occasionally, racist) rants/corporate memos.
The result will be what the Supreme Court calls “the chilling effect”, translated as the restriction of speech and/or expression based on the notion that, by precedent, we can presume/predict a response. In fact, it’s already begun. While Sony was scrambling to deal with the decision from five major movie theater operators to cancel their agreements to run The Interview, another company, New Regency, axed a thriller set in North Korea starring Steve Carrell and directed by Gore Verbinski. So even without the death toll, the damage has been done. Studios will now step back, unable to brave the fallout from a potentially controversial property. It’s censorship as cowardice, and it’s the new norm.
Several in the community have speculated that the fallout from allowing The Interview to go out and cause harm would have been too great for any company to counter… and yet, there’s a prime example staring everyone in the face of why that might not be true. Again, we don’t want violence, but we’ve seen something similar within the last two years. On the night before it’s general release, a gunman named James Eagan Holmes, dressed up in paramilitary garb, set off tear gas during a preview screening of Warner Bros’ The Dark Knight Rises. Then he started shooting. When the smoke cleared and the suspect was caught, 12 people were dead and 70 more were injured. Instead of caving and calling in all prints of the Christopher Nolan superhero epic, Warners calmly cancelled a few premieres, scaled back its marketing, and issued a strongly worded statement about the abhorrence of the events that occurred.
What Warner Bros didn’t do was pull the movie. True, we are talking about the final installment of a multibillion dollar studio cash cow, but Warners would not be moved by arguments that others might wish to “copy” Mr. Holmes’ actions. Instead, it took precautions and played the cards it was handed. Sony decided to simply fold, dodging a bullet that may or may not have been fired in the first place. The former faced down the enemy and won. The latter — and film lovers — will have to live with the consequences from its decision for decades to come.