US Editor Jeremy Kay analyses the effects of Sony’s decision to pull The Interview from release after threats from hackers.
A disastrous few weeks for Sony Pictures Entertainment turned into capitulation on Wednesday as the studio announced it was cancelling the release of The Interview (story here).
While the statement from Sony left open the possibility of a postponed release, the studio subsequently revised its line to say it would not be distributing the film in any form.
And so an unspecified, possibly unknowable threat has brought a US major to its knees. It is the latest indignity to befall the studio after a slew of leaks exposed confidential data as well as hideously immature emails involving Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman Amy Pascal and other prominent figures.
This is a calamity for Sony any way you look at it.
This entire sorry sequence of events and the unprecedented retreat by the studio are truly rooted in their time. They speak to double standards, the erosion of freedom of speech, the fragility of cyber security and the amplified voice of intolerance that holds sway over public life.
Without the support of Regal, AMC and the other top five theatre chains, The Interview was dead in the water. As Sony executives forecast a looming box office catastrophe, financial considerations will have weighed heavily on the decision.
Fair enough - Pascal and her cohorts are businesspeople after all.
However with one week to go before the comedy was scheduled to open, the bulk of Sony’s P&A spend was already a sunk cost, giving credence to the view that the studio acted for the most part out of concern for public safety. And a blatant disregard for freedom of speech.
The hackers calling themselves Guardians Of Peace, purportedly outraged by The Interview’s storyline about a plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, issued a warning on Tuesday advising film-goers to stay away from theatres should the December 25 release go ahead.
US authorities maintained there was no credible threat but that did nothing to allay the fears of theatre owners, whose commitment to the release toppled like a row of dominoes.
Sony told exhibitors it would support whatever they did and ultimately joined them. The studio found itself in a terrible cul-de-sac and made the wrong decision.
To make matters worse the Sony statement referred to freedom of speech in a manner that was glib and ill-conceived.
“We stand by our filmmakers,” part of the statement read, “and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”
Standing by the right to free expression means resolving to have that expression heard; it does not involve stifling it, which is what Sony has done, even though it felt its hands were tied.
Seth Rogen and his director and fellow producer on The Interview Evan Goldberg cannot be feeling Sony stood by them, particularly in light of reports that Pascal and Sony Corporation head honcho Kazuo Hirai himself tried to tone down a scene in which the North Korean leader meets his untimely death.
Furthermore, Sony attempted to suppress press freedom only days ago by threatening legal action over publication of stolen corporate information resulting from the cyber attacks. Fair enough if this was to safeguard confidential data, but the whole thing now smacks of hypocrisy.
At the time others jumped on this bandwagon with Sony; others who, like the studio, demonstrate such hubris when they create movies about figures who have championed the right to free expression or stood up to bullies.
Yes when it found itself in the crosshairs of intolerant adversaries, real or unreal, Sony discovered that its belief in freedom of expression maybe was not that strong after all.
Not everybody would want to see a comedy about a plot to kill the leader of North Korea, but they should have the choice. The movie’s creators should have the right to make that movie and believe it will find an audience, especially after a studio has given an undertaking to back it.
It is the duty of theatre owners to beef up security at their venues and the issue, raised in earnest after the 2012 Aurora shootings, should be revived and acted upon. It is the duty of the police to step up efforts to protect theatre-goers, particularly at a time of threat.
The craziest thing about all this is we are still none the wiser as to the identity of the hackers.
The prevailing wisdom is that Guardians Of Peace is a North Korean entity or one of its agents. Yet the group could just as well hail from another nation state with interest in disrupting US (and Japanese) business. It could be a pan-national group of ideologues. It could be a teenage computer genius acting alone out of his or her bedroom. Nobody knows.
What we do know is that extremism and the intolerance that fuels it have schooled a new generation of highly elusive warriors capable of inflicting great harm on established forces.
In recent years we have seen the rise of internet-based Minutemen wage devastating attacks on corporate and national infrastructures.
Given that anonymity and authenticity are defining features of the internet age, this can play into the hands of those who would wreak havoc online.
These are uncertain, scary times and scary times demand bold, principled action.
As the Sony hierarchy withdraws, lick its wounds and reflects on a horrendous passage of events, the broader question now is when will the next unseen adversary try to hold a studio to ransom, how will that studio act and what does this mean for the future of Hollywood storytelling.