The recent criminal hack of Sony has taken a dramatic and poignant turn, as Sony Pictures has announced the cancellation of the theatrical premiere of The Interview, and with it, the destruction of our most cherished freedom. Movie theater cowards and their studio overlords, overcome by cowardice, have surrendered the First Amendment to hackers making anonymous threats, and the incident has even sent a chill that caused another studio to cancel filming of another North Korea-set film. This is how America ends, not with a bang, but with no Interview.
That’s the general tone of the uproar surrounding the Interview brouhaha (or “Interview-haha™”), and some of that agita is understandable. The First Amendment is our most cherished freedom, and the cancellation of this film’s theatrical release is an offense against that freedom, in spirit if not in substance. According to the U.S. government, there is “linkage” between the North Korean government and the hack of Sony, and subsequent threats of violence at theaters showing The Interview. That government has openly criticized the film, which depicts a fictional plot to assassinate Kim Jong-Un.
According to federal law enforcement agencies, there’s no “credible” information to indicate a plot to attack theaters, and in an interview with ABC News’ David Muir, President Obama said that we should absolutely take the hack seriously, but otherwise just calm the fuck down:
“Well, the cyber attack is very serious. We’re investigating it. We’re taking it seriously. You know, we’ll be vigilant. If we see something that we think is serious and credible, then we’ll alert the public, but for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies.”
That’s good, if familiar-sounding, advice, and rationally speaking, it ought to have carried the day, and had Sony released the film anyway, it might have. But if you’re Sony Pictures, and/or a movie theater chain, you have to think about the bottom line, as well as your customers’ safety. Even a microscopic risk is compounded by the psychology of terrorism, as well as the credibility of the force behind it. If publicity of the threat penetrated broadly enough, it could sink the prospects of every film playing on Christmas, and possibly inspire a copycat crime. As we know all too well, it’s not that difficult to attack a movie theater.
If Sony had done the “brave” thing and opened The Interview, they could have wound up “winning” a disastrous box office for the whole film industry, and God-knows-what if there had actually been an attack. The best case scenario was a poor return on their investment, and a pat on the back from Twitter.
Whether this makes them “cowards” or prudent businesspeople is debatable, but when some jerk calls in a bomb threat to a movie theater, no one yells “Coward!” when they evacuate. Eventually, you get to go back into the movie, and free speech is protected. In the case of The Interview, the march of free speech will probably take the form of some kind of online release which, if done smartly, could net the studio more money than they could ever have hoped to make when the film was first pitched. However it gets out, there is no question that The Interview will end up being seen by millions more people than would have seen it without the hackers’ objections. Their attempt at censorship will have achieved the opposite effect. The terrorists have lost, at least where free speech is concerned.
But what of the “chilling” effect that this incident could have, as evidenced by the cancellation of the Steve Carell vehicle “Gregory the Nuisance?” While that film hadn’t even begun to shoot, it is cause for concern that big Hollywood studios might begin to avoid subject matter based on these sorts of threats. That’s legitimate. On the other hand, though, these are somewhat standard risk assessments that are made along a continuum. You could spray every movie theater in the country with Ebola vomit, and Star Wars fans will still line up in Boba Fett respirators. If you doubt this, recall how we dealt with very real, very credible threats for the film The Dark Knight Returns. Theaters kept playing it, and people kept showing up. Hell, I bet if you made Kim Jong-Un the villain of The Avengers 2, he’d show up to cosplay.
If a film is really important at the other end, it will still get made. I don’t imagine threats like these would have deterred the producers or the audience for Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, for example. A smaller film would have been easier to protect, and more apt to inspire the kind of passionate loyalty required to push back against threats like this. No one wants to be the one dude who died for a geopolitical gloss on The Pineapple Express, no matter how small the risk. It sucks that a few marginal films might suffer from this, but it ain’t Free Speech Thunderdome. After 9/11, there were lots of movies and TV shows that were changed or scrapped, and a jingoistic chill swept over the entire news and entertainment media, but it all corrected itself. Just ask Michael Moore, or even those South Park guys.
As for the “precedent” this sets, this is like every other new, novel threat we face, and then adapt to. No, movie studios won’t cancel every film that gets an anonymous threat, but they might cancel one or two that get threatened by an entire hostile former government, as often as that happens. Anyone wishing to capitalize on that precedent will do so at considerable risk, and with the knowledge that they’re just amplifying the message they’re trying to quash, and we’ll just figure a way around it anyway. We always do. The hacker terrorist-threatmakers have undoubtedly hurt Sony, but they haven’t won anything but a bigger audience for the movie they hate.