It's a cliche, but when it comes to today's cancellation of the Sony comedy The Interview, maybe the terrorists did win. The studio caved after hackers, reportedly linked to North Korea, threatened theater violence if the Seth Rogen movie saw the light of day. (Some don't buy the North Korean connection, though).
Filmmaker Judd Apatow called it a “sad day for creative expression” and said, “When we cave to threats, it trains people to threaten us.” He could be right.
Experts in film, culture and security say the Culver City studio's decision to abort the Christmas day theatrical release of the film and nix even a video-on-demand release is unprecedented in Hollywood and will forevermore subject movies to the kinds of threats of public violence that put The Interview on the shelf.
The movie about a talk TV crew's CIA-initiated plot to assassinate a living state leader, in this case Kim Jong-un, is also nearly without peer—nearly.
Emily Carman, assistant professor of film and media arts at Chapman University, says Hollywood received pressure from the Chinese government in 1932 and 1933 with the releases of Shanghai Express and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, respectively.
The films featured white actors in yellowface as well as interracial relationships. “It was a racist, Eurocentric view of China,” Carman said.
Leaders threatened to block film distribution in China, but Hollywood did not back down, she said.
The Interview also hits a familiar note of insensitivity toward an Asian nation. Before that, in 2001, the Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander featured a plot about a fashion model recruited to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia. That nation and neighboring Singapore banned its exhibition.
“Can you imagine the outcry if North Korean released, Get Obama, about the assassination of a sitting president,” asks Douglas Thomas, associate professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“It's amazing that this even got green-lit,” Carman adds. “Wow, nothing's really changed. This is still a white male, Western-centric view of a small Asian nation.”
That said, no one we talked to was happy with the result—an outside influence pressuring a major studio to snuff out its own content. It's un-American, to be sure.
“It's the terrorist version of the heckler's veto,” says Jim Hanson, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. “At this point it opens up any group that can make even a mildly credible threat to this kind of leverage. It's not a good precedent.”
USC entertainment law lecturer Jonathan Handel agrees, but says Sony had little choice because if anyone ended up being targeted by terrorists at an American theater, the studio, well aware of hackers' threats over the film, could have faced legal action:
This decision by Sony sets a very uncomfortable precedent, but one that Sony had no choice but to set. They have capitulated to cyber-warfare coupled with a terrorist threat. If they hadn't, and if there had been violence at a theater, either instigated by the hacker group, or the North Koreans, or simply by a random copycat, the liability that Sony or a theater would have faced would have been enormous. That made it untenable to release the movie.
The problem now is that studios will undoubtedly factor the possibility of offending nations, terrorists and hacker groups into every movie pitch they green light, as if they need another reason to stick to predictable fare.
Handel hopes that the United States, both its government and citizenry, finally wakes up to the potency of hacking.
Sony hackers this fall obtained and released films, salary information, social security numbers, and embarrassing emails. And now, if the hackers and terrorists are one in the same, they've altered Hollywood history.
He says this is one of “many examples of how unprepared we are” for cyber attacks. Handel would like to see more pressure on hardware and software makers to ensure that encryption is more widely used.
Hanson of the Center for Security Policy blames our federal government for letting this get so out of hand. He believes the North Koreans, without a big reputation for technical savvy, were helped by Chinese programmers.
“The threat is credible because it's [a theater attack] so easy to do, because we're an open society,” he said. “It really comes back to the U.S. government. It becomes a counter-terrorism issue.”