Sony's official announcement that the studio will no longer release Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's North Korean comedy The Interview closed with the line, “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression.”
So what's it like when they don't?
Even running that statement several times through a Newspeak translator, it's hard to understand how Sony can claim the studio is rallying behind the First Amendment. Perhaps because it's yet to burn the film on its own lot behind the soundstage of Wheel of Fortune. Though if Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal won a time machine, you can bet she'd leap back 18 months and cancel Rogen's meeting.
And who could blame her? The last few weeks have been a nightmare for Sony, particularly Pascal. One of only two female major studio heads in Hollywood (the other is Universal's Donna Langley), her hacked emails giving orders, making personnel choices, passing judgment – the job requirements of the boss – have been deemed by the armchair blogosphere as embarrassing and unprofessional. (For what it's worth, if you imagine her dashing them off in hallways between meetings, they make perfect sense.)
For Pascal, things couldn't have gone worse. The Interview has haunted her ever since the parent corporation in Tokyo realized Rogen and Goldberg were actually going to explode Kim Jong-un's face. Since then, she's been squeezed on all sides: from the North Korean Central News Agency decrying the film as a “blatant act of terrorism and war”; from Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai asking her to tone it down; from Rogen grousing, “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy”; from studio employees whose morale is at an unprecedented low; from those of us on the sidelines digging through her private inbox and gossiping about that picture with a pissed-off Angelina Jolie.
When I spoke with Seth Rogen about The Interview just before the attack, he was in great spirits, laughing through our whole lunch even as he admitted, “We were told that they have good hackers in North Korea and that they’ve probably hacked into Sony’s servers and watched the movie already.” Well, at least Kim Jong-un got to see it. Most Americans aren't sure when they'll get the chance.
Let's be clear: Canceling the Christmas Day opening of The Interview is cowardly. Much of that blame rests at the feet of the country's five biggest movie theater chains – AMC, Regal, Cinemark, Carmike and Cineplex – who refused to screen the film after anonymous threats on the Internet vowed to turn opening day into another 9/11. What, they were going to fly an airplane into the AMC Dubuque 14?
But 13 years after the World Trade Center attack, we continue to live in a country that jumps whenever someone says boo. Thanks to the Internet, the spook doesn't even need a face. Though the U.S. government has announced that North Korea was definitively behind the Sony hack, it's still unclear whether the hackers and the threat makers are one and the same. For all we know, the Guardians of Peace who've panicked multiplexes across the heartland are 4chan pranksters piggybacking on the story of the year.
If so, it's the most expensive prank in memory. If even 5 percent of nervous parents kept the family home on Christmas, every holiday blockbuster would have taken a hit. Yet other potentially affected studios including Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros. and the Weinsteins didn't rally behind Sony, forcibly forgetting that this could have happened to them, like drunk drivers cackling when the car behind gets pulled over.
Ninety-eight percent of bomb threats are false. How many major attacks can you name where the terrorist publicly picked a specific day? Yet, the sour truth is that you can't prove a negative: When zilch happens on Christmas Day, Sony and the theaters will congratulate their prudence when nothing was going to happen anyway.
In pulling the film, we've lost the chance to call the terrorists' bluff. Worse, we've hobbled our nation's commitment to free speech in ways we may never see: What scripts will nervous execs veto in fear of their own cyber assault? What films will never exist? How long will studios bite their tongues – and for whom? Another North Korean flick starring Steve Carell and directed by Oscar winner Gore Verbinski has already been preemptively halted.
The truth is, America's commitment to free speech is dwarfed by our commitment to capitalism. Seth Rogen can stand in his house and say anything he wants about Kim Jong-un – but Sony has the choice to fund him, and even if it agrees, AMC can still pull the plug. The corporation, not the individual, has always had the power to decide what movie is a thoughtcrime. We're just only now visibly seeing the suits flex their clout. Despite everything, Pascal at least had the courage to greenlight a comedy about a sitting dictator. Will she be the last studio boss who can make that claim?
At least in one way, The Interview has brought the citizenry of North Korea and America together. Now neither of us is allowed to see the film.
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