We are watching precedent unfold in front of us right now, and I'm afraid we're doing it wrong. Fear is driving a major studio to pull a film from release before it has even opened, and fear had every major theater chain ready to drop the film if the studio hadn't backed down.
My first major job was working for AMC Theaters, starting as an usher, then working my way up through pretty much every position I could hold at a local theater. I worked concessions, I sold tickets, I trained as a projectionist, I built up prints, and by the time I graduated high school, I had become an assistant manager.
When I took my first trip up to Florida State University's campus to prepare for my attendance in the fall of '88, it was the early days of the controversy surrounding “The Last Temptation Of Christ.” There were only vague rumblings of the eventual furor at that point, so I was startled when I was walking with friends near the student union and ran into a guy handing out fliers trying to get people to sign a petition warning local theaters not to play the film when and if it was finally released.
“Or what?” I asked the guy. My friends realized that I was already irritated, and immediately started to try to step in and keep me moving.
“Or there will be consequences,” the guy said. He didn't seem to recognize that I was already angry, and my friends immediately started to tense up for what they saw as an inevitable explosion.
“Really? Like what?”
Obviously, no one else had asked him that question yet, because he didn't seem to have an answer ready. “Uh… well…”
“I mean, I want to understand what you're saying here. Are you going to hurt somebody? Are you going to do something to the theater? Are you going to picket them? What sort of consequences are you talking about?” As I spoke to the guy, I could feel my anger building. “Let's pretend it's opening day and the movie is playing and I walk up to buy my ticket, which you bet your ass I'm going to do, specifically because I know it's going to upset pinheads like you. Tell me exactly what you're going to do to me. What are my consequences?”
Before things could escalate any further, my friends interceded and steered me away, pointing out that we were only visiting the campus and it would probably be a bad thing for me to shove someone's picket sign sideways up their ass before I was even an actual student at the school.
Over the summer, we started getting calls at the theater about the film, and every time, the other managers simply handed the calls over to me, telling me I had carte blanche to speak to the callers any way I chose. If they were simply calling us to say that they wouldn't visit our theater if we played the film, I thanked them for telling us, and I told them that we would book the movie the same way we booked any movie, based on what sort of business we felt it would do. If they were more emotional about it, and especially if they led the conversation with quotes from scripture, then I tended to come back at them in the exact same way. You want to get heated about it? Fine. I was more than happy to get heated about it. There was something that offended me on a chemical level about people getting angry at this film that they hadn't even seen. It was the first time I really saw just how scared people can get about art that challenges what they see as their standards or their beliefs. What I heard in the calls we got was, more than anything, fear. They were afraid that somehow Martin Scorsese and Nikos Kazantzakis were going to destroy 2000 years of cultural heritage with one film, and that fear is what they were reacting to when they made their calls.
Fear is once again driving the decision-making process around a movie, but we live in a very different world than the one that existed when “Last Temptation” was released. Even writing about this situation is difficult because the story continues to change from minute to minute. When I started writing, there were five theater chains that had decided not to show the film. Now Sony has canceled the release altogether. In the last hour, CNN and the NY Times and others are reporting that the US State Department will confirm that North Korea ordered the cyber-attacks. If that's true, then we really have taken our first steps into a world where cyber-wars are a real thing. This is an act of aggression that, as the Dude once said, “shall not stand, man.” While I am outraged because we are now allowing someone to use fear to cancel the release of a motion picture, this is a larger moment than that, more important than that. If Sony decides that they deem this a credible threat and they will not chance further action, then what's to stop the next strike being against a bank or a military contractor? If this is how policy is going to be decided, based on the threat of computer strike, then the balance of world power just shifted, and in a way that I'm not sure anyone is prepared to deal with. Forget about whether or not North Korea is a nuclear power… they don't need to be if this worked. They can just use their keyboards to terrorize, without ever needing to kill anyone.
Does that seem extreme? Does it seem like too much import is being placed on whether or not people get to see a James Franco movie? One of the reasons I would argue that this is important is precisely because the movie is silly and broad and a comedy. If this is enough to terrify this foreign country, then maybe we should examine why they're so afraid of it. Is Kim Jong-un's grip on his nation so fragile that he's afraid it will crumble if he is mocked? Or is it the violence that upsets them? After all, Rogen refused to soft-pedal his approach, and he's been adamant that it is not edgy to call North Korea's leader a bad guy.
Even last night, I had trouble believing that the studio would fully capitulate to these threats. There's never been a moment like this. In the 24 years I've been in Los Angeles, working in and around this industry, I have never seen anyone so effectively shut down the release of a film from the outside, and it feels to me like a corner is being turned. As they cancel the production of other movies outright, the entire industry is watching to see what happens next. I would say there's a strong chance that this is the end of Sony's time in the motion picture business. There were already some major changes being discussed before the hack, but this has accelerated things in many regards, and for Sony, this is starting to be more of a burden than a viable division of their overall corporate structure.
No matter what anyone says in public, I can promise you that this has already changed what people will or won't make, and it will be a long time before any studio allows any filmmaker to dabble in real-world politics. We've seen studios shrug off petitions and pickets and organized protests, but this was enough to make a studio pull their Christmas Day wide release, a movie that was set for thousands of screens, over the mere suggestion of something vague, something “bad.” And by announcing that the tactic has worked, Sony has just handed a playbook to anyone else who decides that they want to censor the next film or TV show or album that they don't like. What's that? The new “Uncharted” game features bad guys from Iran? Well, now some Iranian hackers just have to publish some embarrassing internal e-mails and then they'll be able to bully Playstation into killing a major franchise, right?
Here's the hard part: there was no good solution to this for Sony. There was no version of this that ended with them on top of the situation. If they pushed ahead with the release, they'd be hammered for being irresponsible, and it isn't just their own films that would be impacted. Every studio counts on that Christmas Day rush, and if audiences genuinely felt like they were in danger, then “Into The Woods” and “Unbroken” and everything else still playing would all be impacted. Sony just handed the holidays over to all of their competitors, and they did so by canceling what would have been a fairly lucrative release for themselves.
Now, for a little perspective, obviously none of what we're talking about here compares to what North Korea does to its own citizens, and here's where things get very surreal and hard to sort out. One of the things that is strangest about watching “The Interview” is realizing that the Kim Jong-un that they present in the film is less ridiculous and bizarre than the real Kim Jong-un, and that the conditions the film shows in North Korea are nothing compared to the real conditions faced by the citizens of that country.
Instead of worrying for the moment about what effect this has on art or commerce, how about opening up the international conversation about just how willing we are as an international community to let this squalid little nightmare of a nation dictate anything to anyone outside its borders? Are we seriously, as a planet, okay with letting the delusional man-baby who runs North Korea tell anyone anywhere how they can or can't do things? At what point do we take the information that they are willing to engage in cyber-terrorism and use that information to make a decision about how we handle them moving forward? Are we okay with this sub-par Bond villain being allowed to continue to operate this way? Or is this the moment where we realize that he is not a punchline, and North Korea is not a joke, and this is not just an isolated event that only impacts the people in his country?
This is not an entertainment industry story. This is not a computer industry story. This is a major turning point in how we are going to have to treat any act of cyber terrorism. There is a reason that we have not been breathlessly re-printing each new detail that has been uncovered by the tabloid press as they'e been sorting through the leaked documents from this hack, and that's because we were not comfortable being part of the problem. We aren't going to gleefully benefit from the actions of these hackers, because it's all part of the same criminal action. The effectiveness of their threats and their demands are tied directly to the attention paid to all the gossipy details of the documents they stole and released. If you've been printing story after story about who called who what name in what e-mail, then you are part of the reason Sony is pulling the film from theatrical release. You can't condemn any part of these actions if you're willing to benefit from them, and today it should be startlingly clear which side of this situation is the right side and which side is not.
I don't believe “The Interview” is gone for good. Sony will find a way to release the film. There has never been a moment more ripe for VOD to step up and become genuinely significant, and if Sony announced tomorrow that the film will be on VOD on Friday, I believe it would be the single highest-grossing VOD title of all time.
But we'd lose something very special in that case. We'd lose that connection that happens in a theater when an audience is joined by laughter, and I've seen so many remarkable examples of that over the course of my life and I've been at so many screenings that I can honestly describe as magic that I feel like we have to keep our eye on the prize here, which is that no one should be able to take away the communal experience. No one should be able to force us out of the theaters and into our homes out of fear. And there are few things more powerful than the sound of unified laughter. That's what North Korea fears more than anything: being ridiculous. They know that it's one thing to be vilified, but another thing entirely to be reduced to a laughing stock. They thrive on fear. They want to be the bad guys. They have got to be celebrating that fear has won this week.
But in the end, they will be reduced and mocked and shrunk by laughter, and they will be exposed as ridiculous, and they will not last. And if our industry really matters, it will work to keep anyone else from ever having to face the decision of having to pull a film from release over threats of violence. North Korea cannot be empowered by this moment. The hackers cannot be empowered by this moment. This is what art can do better than anything else. We can rewrite the world and bend the narrative, and each and every time someone is able to see “The Interview,” it is a direct strike back against this effort to silence artists. Every single laugh is another strike at their ego and their insecurity. I was a fan of the film anyway, but at this point, I consider it one of 2014's essential films.
Let laughter be our ultimate answer here. That's what scares them most.