Freedom vs. Fear

Christmas has come and gone. The Interview played in over 300 theaters, and was available on several Video on Demand platforms. There was no 9/11 type attack, as the Sony hackers threatened. In fact, there was no violence at all. The film is out, and anyone who wants to see it can do so.

The whole furor seems so unnecessary now. After the hackers made their threats, Sony and the major movie theater chains could have jointly stated that they will not give in to extortion. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Together, they could have made whatever additional security precautions were needed and proceeded with the release of The Interview as planned. Instead, Sony and the major theater chains began a fear and blame cycle. First, the Landmark theater chain cancelled the New York premiere, which had been set for one of its venues. Sony cancelled for stars James Franco and Seth Rogen. The five largest theater chains then pulled The Interview from its planned showings, citing “the wavering support of the film The Interview by Sony Pictures.” Finally, Sony pulled The Interview completely. Just as the theater chains blamed Sony, Sony blamed the theater chains, with studio chairman Michael Lynton saying that the move came "as a result of the majority of the nation's theater owners choosing not to screen the film. This was their decision."

The cowardice went even further. A couple of theaters that had planned to show The Interview announced that they would show Team America: World Police in its place. Team America, from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, had garnered its own controversy ten years ago by mercilessly ridiculing Kim Jong Il. So it seemed to be a fitting replacement for The Interview, except that Paramount silently pulled the film from distribution. Not one studio had publicly supported Sony after the hackings and the threats. George Clooney mentioned that he had circulated a petition supporting Sony within Hollywood circles, but that no one signed.

Who, and what was this cowardice protecting? The Department of Homeland Security had found no evidence of a credible threat against movie theaters. If the theater chains were truly worried about violence, they could have invested in more security. After the horrific shootings in 2012 during a showing of The Dark Knight Returns, no one pulled that film from theaters.

Perhaps the real issue wasn’t physical security, but computer security. As the hackers reported more embarrassing information from Sony, including e-mails slamming Hollywood talent, and racist messages about President Obama, I wonder how many rival executives were thinking, “Better them than us” and praying that no one hacked into their systems. Along those lines, were the theater chains trying to protect theatergoers or their own computer networks?

While Sony certainly comes off better now, let’s look past their later spin that they never backed away from the movie; that they were always looking for new venues. That was not the message they sent on December 17th. Even though some independent theater owners and smaller chains had stated that they would gladly show The Interview, there was no indication from Sony that they were considering this. Their spokespeople even said that there were no plans to release the film on DVD or on demand. If Sony never wavered in its support of the film, then why were the publicity plans scrapped? Why did they take the film’s trailer and other promotional materials off the Internet?

After Sony and the major theater chains had capitulated to the hackers' demands (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what they did), people got angry. Now any group of people who can breach computer security could dictate what films couldn’t be shown. If North Korea was tied to these “Guardians of Peace” cyberterrorists, as the FBI has indicated, this means foreign dictatorships could conceivably have veto power over movie choices. I prepared a column full or righteous indignation, closing with “If we don’t all come together to support films that take on powerful interests, this defeat will be followed by many other ones.”

In a strange way, America did come together. Hollywood celebrities, journalists, and people across the country denounced Sony’s decision. Conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike urged Sony to reconsider. Independent theater chains sent an open letter to Sony and started an online petition requesting that they be able to show the film. President Obama publicly called Sony’s decision “a mistake.”

Only after the President’s statement did Sony show signs it was reconsidering. Then, almost as quickly as the release was cancelled it was back on again. Of course the new release was very different. Instead of the major theater chains, it was independent theaters and smaller arthouse chains showing the film. Sony also made the film available on demand the same day. Major chains have understandably pushed back hard against studios releasing films in theaters and on demand simultaneously. But since these chains had already backed out of The Interview, they had no ground to stand on. So while Sony was able to rebound, it’s those theater chains that are the biggest losers in this story. Not only did they back down in the face of security threats that did not exist, but they opened the door a bit wider for their competitors.

For other parts of America, the capitulation turned into a celebration. Historian Douglas Brinkley described the party at the Austin, TX Alamo Drafthouse when it debuted The Interview. Similar parties erupted at screenings everywhere, with Rogen himself appearing at the Cinefamily theater in LA to thank the theater and the audience. Brinkley wrote that “When history looks back on the whole Sony vs. North Korea tempest of recent weeks, the true heroes of the saga will be America's Independent cinema owners.” These theaters were rewarded with sold out showings.

So what happens in the near future? The Sony hacking clearly shook Hollywood to its core. The Interview came out, but will studios even greenlight other films that take on powerful interests, be they foreign or domestic? In the wake of the Sony scandal, Fox and New Regency quietly pulled the plug on a planned thriller set in North Korea. I hope other studios will not follow suit. We have already seen what happens when studios and theater chains act timidly. Since The Interview already had national attention, the public was in a position to support the film. But if the next film going after North Korea or another totalitarian regime doesn’t get made in the first place, few people will ever know.

Right now, though, we can rejoice. The Interview is out for the world to see. The theaters and audiences were completely safe. For the time being anyway, fear lost and freedom won.

Adam Spector
January 1, 2015

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