‘The Interview’ and Free Speech: A Plausible Alternative

Sony’s cancellation of the 25 December screening of The Interview may not be the free speech catastrophe that it's being made out to be.

To be sure, Sony’s decision to pull the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview from its Christmas Day release following a massive hacking of the company’s computer systems, along with threats of violence invoking 9/11, is troubling on many grounds. For one, it reveals just how tyrannical the North Korean government truly is. The decision is also another piece of evidence for just how deadly cyberterrorism continues to be, given that, according to security research, whoever hacked Sony’s databases following the controversy surrounding The Interview had “extensive knowledge of Sony’s internal architecture and access to key passwords.” Above all else, however, Sony’s move has raised numerous questions about the importance of free speech.

Sony’s cancellation of the 25 December screening of The Interview may not be the free speech catastrophe that it’s being made out to be.

In an article for PopMatters‘s film blog Short Ends and Leader, Bill Gibron argues against the cancellation of the film’s release date on the grounds of the freedom of speech. He argues that as a result of this decision, other movie 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.” Gibron cites the choice of the New Regency film company to cancel a Gore Verbinski-directed thriller set in North Korea starring Steve Carrell. Decisions like these, Gibron rightly notes, are an example of what is called “‘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.”

Film: The Interview

Director: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

Studio: Sony

Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Timothy Simons

US Release Date: TBD

UK Release Date: TBD

Year: 2014

MPAA Rating: R

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/1/14043123828da4the_interview_poster_a_p.jpgGibron is, of course, correct. Speech and artistic expression should not be censored based on a concern that people will not like it, or perhaps even act out against it. For example, while there have been thought-provoking arguments about the racist casting dynamics in Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, no one there is suggesting that the film be banned. These angry consumers are well within their rights to not give Scott their money by seeing the movie, but it would be another thing entirely if they called for a regulatory body to bar the movie from being shown. Furthermore,while there are credible arguments to be made for laws against hate speech, incitement, or “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” cases, western liberal societies have long prided themselves on engaging in artistic discourses that often involve incendiary works of art.

For example in 2006, with two years still left in George W. Bush’s presidency, British filmmaker Gabriel Range released the film Death of a President, the central conceit of which is the fictional assassination of President Bush. That film screened all across America, even with the Bush administration still in office. Many people were not happy with the film (including former First Lady Hillary Clinton), but no one was arrested or tried for treason in the process of making it. One can contest both the artistic merits or the political tastefulness of the movie, but it’s hard not to admit that the existence of Death of a President reflects a strong commitment to freedom of expression.

One can also consider the fact that, despite American society’s general loathing of the Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group masquerading as a church, the organization is still allowed to have protests. Cases like that are a living example of the long-standing view that the test of one’s principles is not how one practices them when things are easy, but rather when things are difficult. Indeed, one of the things about free speech that makes it deserving of stringent protection is that it makes us uncomfortable. It challenges and awakens us from complacency and dogma.

For all of those reasons, the cancellation of The Interview‘s initial release date should alarm people about the important matter of free speech. One should not be surprised that Gibron, along with many others, has begun to feel the icy climb of the chilling effect. As a society, we should be concerned about what has happened here.

However, this may not be the free speech catastrophe that it’s being made out to be. While the full picture of what is going on here will only become clear as the relevant facts come out while both Sony and the United States government try to figure out who the hackers are, at the moment there is reason to believe that Sony’s move is not an act of capitulation to terrorists, even if it does superficially appear that way.

To understand why, one needs to examine what Sony specifically said in its press release following the cancellation. It reads:

In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

Dominic Patten of Deadline received an additional statement from a Sony representative: “Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film.”

Here is what we can infer from both Sony’s official statement and the follow-up given to Deadline: The Interview will not be released… on 25 December.

That last date is important. Patten makes a seriously overexaggerated claim when, in the same article where he provides the comment from Sony’s rep, he announces, “The Interview is over – really and truly.” The one thing that certainly cannot be concluded from Sony’s official statements is that the movie will never be released. Far from it.

In fact, based on all that has happened, it’s impossible to imagine The Interview not being released.

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Following the hacking of Sony’s databases, the company received threats from a group calling itself “Guardians of Peace”. These threats include attacks on any theatre that plans to show the film; the Guardians of (Really Anything But) Peace intone, “The world will be full of fear… Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time”.

What the Guardians of Peace is trying to do is the classic moral hat-trick that terrorists and extortionists keep at the top of their repertoires: threaten to do something bad unless your victim does something you want, that way if they don’t do what you want, they feel morally culpable for the crime that happens. Of course, were the Guardians of Peace to actually mount an attack — assuming the threats are credible — it would be the only guilty party, period. One does not have to bend over backwards to make the moral argument that, in this case, attempting to transfer blame onto an innocent party is a futile enterprise. Nevertheless, this hat-trick plays on the seemingly endless human capacity for fear, and as a consequence it continues to have power.

However, although these threats are anonymous and, as of this point, unverifiable, Sony does have a legitimate empirical reason to be concerned about releasing The Interview: the company has already been hacked. The results of the hacking are serious, and the company is in the right state of mind if it’s trying to minimize losses at this point. Sony has lost several unreleased films to file sharing, meaning numerous sizeable investments made by the studio are now likely to face financial losses. Further, numerous communiqués were leaked, revealing unflattering remarks from high-level executives about famous actors and actresses.

All of these things are bad for company image and profit; it should be no surprise, then, that Sony is taking serious action to ensure that no other attacks on the company — to say nothing of the lives of innocent moviegoers — will occur. Like any major company in a capitalist system, Sony’s incentives are fundamentally fiduciary; as such, it’s transparent as to why it’s doing whatever it can to cover up for what has been a major financial liability and a huge source of embarrassment. As I stated previously, it’s entirely understandable to be angered by Sony’s decision, as the implications for free speech drawn out by Gibron and all of Sony’s critics on this matter are of grave importance. But to see swaths of people stunned by what was the most obvious choice for Sony makes little sense, given the nature of the profit motive.

Sony’s profit-maximizing (or, in this case, profit-saving) incentives notwithstanding, here one is likely to point out that the issue here is not primarily about profits. She would be correct in pointing this out. She would also be correct in noting that, even if profit motive was the major concern, Sony stands to lose $80 million by pulling The Interview from theaters, in addition to the $100 million (and growing) costs that the company is accruing as a result of the cyberattack. In the short term, that figure is likely. In the long term, however, the company actually has good reason to be optimistic about profits from the film.

The Best Thing That Could Happen to The Interview

Here we arrive at what is the biggest and perhaps the best thing to happen to The Interview: its cancellation. If the hacking of Sony’s databases had never happened, and the Pyongang government had merely shrugged off Franco and Rogen’s R-rated take on a fictional assassination, The Interview would have been a different movie. The film’s current Metascore of 46 more or less confirms this; in early screenings, critics found it be not much more than high-concept comedy strewn with Goldberg and Rogen’s requisite bawdy humor. Few, if any, waxed grandiloquent about the film’s satiric content. One need only watch the film’s trailer to get a sense of what the movie really is: a raunchy flick where men joke about Nikki Minaj’s nether regions and shoving things up their rectums. Sure, those same men happen to get called upon by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong Un, but the role of that plot point is not to serve as some incendiary, complex satire on the state of Pyongang politics. Rather, it might be best described as the plot to the next Call of Duty game… starring James Franco and Seth Rogen.

The cancellation of The Interview‘s holiday release smacks of short-term thinking… at first pass.

Now that the film has been recalled from theaters, however, the game has changed completely. Here it should be clarified that the response to The Interview by the Kim Jong Un regime (which called the movie “an act of war”) and the cyberattacks faced by Sony have not been proven to be related. In fact, as PCWorld‘s Martyn Williams wisely points out, “If the hack was all about stopping the release of The Interview, why didn’t that come up earlier? For the first couple of weeks, the messages that accompanied leaked data didn’t mention the movie at all. It was much more about Sony and its executives—something underlined by the vindictiveness of the leaks.” Moreover, Scott Borg, the director and chief economist of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, told NBC News, “The skill level of these cyberattacks is just too much of a jump from what North Korean hackers were capable of earlier this year.”

The conclusion Borg draws from that statement is that North Korea is likely behind the cyberattacks, but it itself did not do the actual hacking, instead hiring outside hackers to do the work for it. There are other plausible sources for the hacking, though, as Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy reports:

Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert and the chief technology officer of the security software firm Co3, thinks it’s more likely that the attack was carried out by “just a couple of guys” who are unaffiliated with North Korea. “Sony is a company hackers have hated for more than a decade,” he said.

The reasons why the North Korean government would avoid actually undergoing any type of attack, cyber or otherwise, are numerous. For one, it has little to gain — other than boosting its own pride, which it already does plenty of — and lots to lose, given that the asymmetry of power between it and the United States is massive. The US avoids aggressing against North Korea for obvious reasons, namely that to do so would make shaky US-China tensions worse, but if it did suffer an attack by North Korea, even a digital one, decisive action would be taken. While the North Korean government is definitely loony, to put it mildly, it’s not without a self-preservation urge, and a cyberattack on one US company is only vindictive, which Pyongang no doubt knows.

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Ultimately, though, whether or not North Korea is behind the hacks is not the relevant point with respect to the status of The Interview following its removal from theaters. Because of the film’s plot, its direct response from North Korea, and now its cancellation, the initial fate suffered by The Interview will always be seen as an act of aggression on the part of North Korea. As a consequence, the film has now become a martyr for free speech, a victim at the hands of the totalitarian tactics of the North Korean government. Frequent Rogen collaborator Judd Apatow, who took to Twitter to roundly criticize Sony’s decision, argues this point: “This only guarantees that this movie will be seen by more people on Earth than it would have before. Legally or illegally all will see it.” If North Korea thought The Interview was “an act of war”, it has no idea what is coming once the film gets a broad public viewing.

Here, one can do a riff on the classic dictum “There’s no such thing as bad press”: “Sometimes bad press is the best press.”

The Interview was bound to be a box office (albeit not a critical) success for numerous reasons. The pairing of Franco and Rogen is a profitable one, as evinced by the popularity of flicks such as the 2007 stoner favorite Pineapple Express and the 2013 metacomedy This is the End. There is also the matter of the film’s over-the-top premise, which is attention-grabbing by its nature. Now, however, The Interview is likely to double its success, for not only does it have those two things going for it, but it also has the narrative of “the movie that North Korea censored” emblazoned across it for eternity.

Sony knows this. Already, a new promo for The Interview has “accidentally” leaked online, which includes the tagline, “In Franco and Rogen We Trust”. And there it is, summed up in six simple words: a catchy, nationalistic tagline that heightens the perception that Sony’s cancellation of the film’s Christmas day release was caused by the evildoings of the North Korean regime. The phrase has already appeared all over Twitter, as has the leaked Kim Jong Un death scene from the film.

As a result of the cancellation, thousands have taken to social media, sharing hashtags, jokes, and outrage. But for whatever differences there may be in the response to the cancellation, one thing is undeniable: momentum for The Interview is building. With more and more online petitions and critiques from Hollywood celebrities mounting by the day, the movie’s social capital is increasing at rates Sony never could have predicted had the hacking and the controversy not happened. With fans already rating The Interview at a 9.8 on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) before any official release, one would be right in thinking, in spite of all that is happening now, the future of this movie is going to be quite good.

All of this brings us back to the one thing that we could glean from The Interview‘s release date being thrown out: the movie is not going to be released… on 25 December. While Sony’s decision to pull the film from cinemas may set a dangerous precedent with regards to free speech, as Gibron and others have argued, the notion that it must be an act of “corporate cowardice” (to use the words of George R.R. Martin) simply overlooks the long view of the situation. Yes, this could be a tail-between-the-legs maneuver by Sony, but it just as well could be a well-devised strategy to boost The Interview‘s profile, in the process raising the probability that the company will see significant ticket sale increases in a time when it has faced no small amount of money loss.

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An example brought up by Gibron is illustrative here. Citing the case of the Dark Knight shooting in Aurora, Colorado in 2008, he writes, “Instead of caving and calling in all prints of the Christopher Nolan superhero epic, Warner Bros calmly cancelled a few premieres, scaled back its marketing, and issued a strongly worded statement about the abhorrence of the events that occurred.” He further notes that by taking this approach, Warner Bros “took precautions and played the cards it was handed”; in the end, the studio “faced down the enemy and won”. By contrast, in the case of The Interview, Gibron argues that Sony “decided to simply fold, dodging a bullet that may or may not have been fired in the first place.”

This interpretation, which is shared by large swaths of both Hollywood and those analyzing the situation, commands our attention. The concern for free speech is an inextricable part of the discourse surrounding this controversy, and its role should not be minimized. It’s entirely possible, however, that overemphasizing the freedom of speech concerns could miss out on what is a highly plausible counterfactual that is unfolding right before our eyes. Just as Warner Bros was judicious in its use of freedom of speech by canceling screenings of The Dark Knight out of sensitivity to the victims of the Aurora shooting, Sony’s removal of The Interview from theaters could be a strategic move for the betterment of all parties involved.

The cancellation of The Interview‘s holiday release does smack of short-term thinking at first pass: “We got threatened, therefore we must give in.” However, it should be noted that 25 December is not actually the film’s original release date; that date was 3 October, which was was changed so that the studio could alter some details in the movie in the hopes of mitigating backlash. This altering process involved the extensive digital removal of buttons worn by the characters in the film, as the buttons directly resemble ones used in North Korea to show pride for the Kim family.

The decision to alter the movie came after comments made by North Korea in June, when it made the initial claim that the film is “an act of war.”Thus, Sony already had the opportunity to nix The Interview following threats similar to the ones raised by Sony’s enemies at the present, but it didn’t. If this move is purely defensive, without any regard for the freedom of speech, one has to wonder why the studio didn’t pull the plug before 3 October. Something in the timeline, as well as the company’s strategy, has changed.

From this, it becomes clearer that when one considers the long-term alternatives, Sony’s move could be in the best interests of the company and film itself. If the narrative of “Sony is behaving cowardly” is plausible, certainly “Sony is trying to find ways to make more money” is, too – it’s a corporation, after all. Depending on where things go from here, Sony’s actions could end up harming the practice of free speech in show business. That is the risk it took in pulling the film from theaters, and should it fumble the play it will have to (and should) face repercussions. But if it’s able to leverage the momentum that continues to build following the cancellation, Sony could transform The Interview into a political statement far more decisive than if the film had come out on Christmas Day. In doing so, the company would give the hackers the illusion of victory only to then snatch it away from them, in the process releasing a film that is far different and far more powerful than the one the hackers had initially protested against.

The key question of The Interview‘s indefinitely suspended release is usually phrased as, “Should Sony release the movie or not?” Given all of the attention and social media build-up the studio is now in the midst of, the actual question could instead be, “Should Sony release the movie… on 25 December, or some other time?” With the spotlight of the news and the internet square on The Interview right now, Sony has more than a few good reasons to believe that holding it off for a bit is the best move for Franco and Rogen’s violent farce.