I remember the first time I heard that North Korea was getting all upset about the release of The Interview. In fact, it was the very first time I had heard about this farce in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play TV personalities who get invited to interview Kim Jong Un, and the CIA asks them to kill the North Korean tyrant while they’re at it.
At the time, I laughed off North Korea’s anger. Mostly because they’ve always been the very picture of impotent rage. North Korea is known for taking every tiny little opportunity to beat their chests and threaten military force, pretending to be a world superpower. To my knowledge, nothing has ever come of their threats. Moreover, the international grosses were no threat because North Korea is notoriously unpopular throughout the world. As far as I know (which isn’t very far, I confess), China is the only country that has their back, and that’s only because they don’t want to deal with all the refugees fleeing over the border in the event that North Korea ever goes to war. But I digress.
The point is that nobody had any reason to take North Korea’s threats seriously. The United States had no reason to think that North Korea’s threats were any more dire than usual, Columbia Pictures had no reason to change their movie, and Sony (Columbia’s parent corporation) had no reason to worry. What could possibly go wrong?
Last Thanksgiving weekend, Sony employees were greeted on their Vaio computers with a warning from a hacker group called “#GOP” or “Guardians of Peace.” The warning’s broken English stated that Sony’s internal data had been stolen and all of it would be made public unless their demands were met. What those demands were, nobody knew. It looked for all the world like some useless little prank. Then the entire Sony corporation got turned inside out. Seriously, all of it.
Entire movies were leaked, including films that weren’t set to come out until later this year. Company memos were made public. Financial records. Screenplay drafts. E-mails. Executive salaries. The Playstation Network. Even medical records and social security numbers of Sony employees. The complete inner workings of this massive international corporation were laid bare for the world to see, down to the least detail, and news sources throughout the globe are still combing through all the data.
And who was behind it all? We still don’t know for sure. The US government seems very convinced that North Korea is behind the hack, though the North Korean government itself has publicly denied any culpability. Though they did condone the hacking, calling it a “righteous deed.” So it was probably North Korea.
Cut to yesterday, three weeks after the initial hack, when the #GOP released a statement threatening anyplace that screens The Interview. So it was definitely North Korea.
Today, news came out that the biggest theater chains in the nation decided to respond by refusing to screen the movie. A short time later, Sony made the announcement that the movie’s release — set to happen only a week from now, on Christmas Day — would be cancelled. To date, Sony has not disclosed any plans to release the film at a later date in any format.
There’s a lot here to unpack.
First of all, I have to admit that I was not looking forward to this movie. It looked for all the world like another film in which Seth Rogen and his buddies improvise jokes for however long a time and someone cut together the better jokes into a two-hour movie with something that vaguely resembles a plot. A film that was assuredly more fun to make than it would have been to sit through, much like last year’s This is the End. The world will get by without another Seth Rogen comedy. In fact, I’m sure there are some who would argue that the world is better off with one less Seth Rogen comedy.
But as Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Though apparently, the corporations who make money screening movies would disagree with that statement.
On the one hand, I can understand theater owners being scared. After all, we’re not just living in the shadow of 9/11, but the Aurora massacre as well. Could anyone realistically have taken out every single theater where The Interview was being screened? Of course not, especially if everything had gone according to plan and the movie had made it to thousands of screens across the nation (and hundreds of thousands more around the world). But we already know that attacking a single theater is all too easy, and that’s still one too many.
Furthermore, this hacking doesn’t change the irreversible truth that money talks and bullshit walks. Sony has already sunk at least $50 million dollars into production and advertising for this movie, and they need that money back. Hell, Sony already has to deal with the hack, the crushing disappointment of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and the humiliating loss of Aaron Sorkin’s Jobs biopic to Universal. It’s been an awful year and they very badly need something — anything — to call a victory.
Maybe Sony will release it theatrically when all of this blows over. Downloads and streaming could be risky, depending on the nature of Sony’s online adversaries and whether the customers would be opening themselves up to attack, but it could still happen. If nothing else, we can be damn well sure that someone will leak the movie and it’ll be torrented throughout the world. One way or another, The Interview will see the light of day.
But it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, Sony, AMC, Regal Entertainment, and several other huge international conglomerates surrendered to some crew of cowards behind keyboards. The terrorists won. And if you think that’s not a big deal, consider this: What if someone threatened that another Aurora shooting will happen when Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice premieres? Suppose ISIS (or even some 4channers posing as ISIS) threatened to blow up a national monument if Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits theaters as planned. The theater chains of America — not even the individual theaters themselves, you understand, but the corporate overlords who run the theaters — have proven that they would rather lose millions of dollars by refusing to screen a movie over a threat that’s very likely empty, rather than respond by investing in precautions to keep their customers and employees safe. And the multibillion-dollar media conglomerates will kowtow accordingly.
That’s really the crappiest part about this: It wasn’t our choice. We could still choose to fly on airplanes in the wake of 9/11, and we can still choose to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies after Aurora. We can decide not to be scared of past events and go enjoy something in spite of the infinitesimal risks. Unless some billionaire gets scared, and then no one gets to make that decision.
This brings me to the other takeaway from this whole hacking fiasco: Amy Pascal is so fucking fired. The Sony co-chairman may not be officially sacked yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Even if we ignore all the leaked memos and e-mails that make her look like an incompetent, racist nitwit (and to be fair, those exchanges were never meant for public viewing anyway), the fact remains that Pascal has done a tremendously awful job at handling this whole affair. Part of her job is damage control, and I’ve yet to see any sign that Pascal is doing anything to boost morale or salvage the company’s reputation in this whole debacle. Another part of her job is to deal with entertainers and convince them to bring their quality projects to the company. After glimpsing the inner workings of how Pascal deals with producers — particularly her now-infamous squabble with Scott Rudin over Jobs and Angelina Jolie’s Cleopatra project — it’s hard to imagine any filmmaker who’d be eager to deal with Pascal or her company.
If a group of hackers could break into the Sony mainframe and release a movie prematurely, would you trust them with a film you’re producing? If you were a foreign investor and you knew that Sony’s books could be made public at any time, would you give them millions of dollars toward a film they were budgeting? And now, perhaps most importantly, why would anyone let Sony produce or distribute a movie after Sony has proven that they will publicly and indefinitely shelve a film at any time because theater chains and anonymous hackers scared them into it?!
Amy Pascal needs to be fired immediately. Scores of Sony executives should lose their jobs over this. Moreover, heads need to roll at the theater chains as well; if I was a shareholder at Regal or AMC, I’d be pissed off that so much money was lost by this act of cowardice and the fact that it could happen again at any time. Hell, why stop there? Let’s see executives at Disney, Time Warner, and NBCUniversal condemn this act and pledge that nothing like it would ever happen with their films.
That’s really the most important takeaway from all this: We can’t let it happen ever again. I don’t care who has to be fired, and I don’t care how much the public and private sectors have to invest in better online security. All cinema depends on freedom of speech, and good cinema needs the freedom to be bold and take risks, even (sometimes especially) if it means pissing people off.
I used to be upset with studios sticking to the safe and familiar for fear of hurting the bottom line, appeasing the lowest common denominator to drive up ticket sales. Well, it seems that the stakes are now much higher than anyone thought. Those who make movies need bravery, now more than ever. The fate of cinema itself depends on it.