A decade ago, hacking must have been a less-evolved skill. Otherwise, North Korea would have certainly targeted Paramount Pictures for daring to release “Team America: World Police.”
This is the 2004 film that depicted Kim Jong Il, the famously “il”-tempered North Korean dictator, as a bloodthirsty marionette. It was as unflattering a portrayal of a reigning world leader as was ever produced by a major American studio.
Now his son Kim Jong Un is the lampooned victim in “The Interview,” an action-comedy originally intended for a Christmas release by Sony Pictures. On Wednesday, amid threats by a presumed shadowy unit of hackers that already had gone public with the studio’s internal emails, Sony decided to pull the film.
The garbled “warning” from the hackers stated, “We will clearly show it to you and the very time and places ‘The Interview’ be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to. ... 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.”
Sony had first agreed to let theatrical chains decide for themselves whether to screen the feature. Then Sony bailed entirely and issued this statement: “We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theatergoers.”
But most curious is Sony also stated it has no further plans to release “The Interview” in any platform, including VOD or DVD. So it’s not really about the physical safety of theatergoers. It’s about content, ideas and corporate culture.
Everyone from Freedom of Speech advocates to ex-Bush Administration officials are condemning Sony’s decision. Odd. Uncharacteristic. Unprecedented. How about cowardly?
Not to be an alarmist, but this is the type of short-sighted move that could kill an entire industry. Abandoning the film — and its stars Seth Rogen and James Franco — because of an implied threat leaves the door open for anyone with a grudge to have the power to shelve a movie project, even just a proposed one.
The panic already is spreading beyond the Sony empire. After “The Interview” was canceled, New Regency announced it was pulling the plug on Steve Carell’s “Pyongyang,” a thriller concerning a Westerner’s experience working in North Korea. Paramount on Thursday pulled the aforementioned “Team America” from theaters that were planning to show it in place of “The Interview.”
Think how the decisions could affect the slate of 2015 releases: Conservative religious organizations might find the S&M sexuality of “Fifty Shades of Grey” unacceptable for the multiplex. The tech industry might not appreciate the idea of an artificially intelligent robot attempting to eradicate the human race in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Anti-gun activists may target “American Sniper.” Racist hate groups — or movie critics — may not wish anyone to see Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Tough Love.”
Now all it takes is a hack and a threat. The unfounded fear of what could happen is evidently more compelling than what is actually happening.
Variety said “The Interview” was budgeted at $42 million (plus tens of millions in marketing in promotion, according to Variety) and projected to make more than $100 million.
Even though Sony grossed $3 billion in worldwide box office last year (the fifth-highest total among the Big Six studios), it’s in no position to take a loss of that magnitude, especially if this is just the first of many capitulations by the company.
And if you’re an actor or filmmaker, do you want to work for a studio that might pull your movie because of a poorly worded threat?
The attacks might be the work of North Korea-sponsored hackers. Or they might be by a disgruntled ex-Sony employee. It might be because of anger over the release of “The Interview.” It might be a smokescreen for some other agenda. Either way, it’s clear the economic and artistic fallout cuts deeper than the political fallout.
Ultimately, what matters is how Sony responded. The sage strategy for dealing with a hollow threat is to ignore or embrace it. The studio could have stood up to the “cyber terrorists” without endangering its exhibitors and moviegoers by instantly releasing the movie online. Instead, they have so far opted to bury the movie — along with their credibility and potential viability — in a Hollywood vault.
The irony is “The Interview” likely will turn up on the Internet soon in all its irreverent glory.
Pirated and leaked by hackers, no doubt.