By David Hickman for The Conversation
Is The Interview a good movie? We may never know. After the theft by North Korean hackers of vast quantities of confidential emails, pay information and unreleased film scripts, the drip-drip leaking of all this to the media, and an explicit threat of terrorism, Sony Pictures has caved. It has cancelled not just the premiere and US theatrical release of the film, but also all DVD and VOD launches. Worldwide.
Sony, in short, has taken a $42m bath (plus prints and advertising costs) on the off-chance that we may laugh unacceptably loudly at the portrayal of a hyper-violent buffoon.
The cancellation of the premiere and release of the film has caused a wave of protest, especially from Hollywood insiders. Most recently, George Clooney attacked the press and Hollywood for failing to stand up to the hackers, with Sony. Aaron Sorkin, always an eloquent defender of liberal values, complained that the US was succumbing “to an unprecedented attack on our most cherished, bedrock principle of free speech.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Ben Stiller, Rob Lowe, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Kimmel and many others. A thriller called Pyongyang, starring Steve Carell and Gore Verbinski, has also been cancelled because 20th Century Fox has withdrawn an undertaking to distribute.
What’s at stake?
So why withdraw the film? Let’s deal with an easy one first. Embarrassment. The hackers revealed that Sony executive Amy Pascal (that rare species, a woman in a position of power in Hollywood) and independent producer Scott Rudin exchanged private, scathing comments about Angelina Jolie and her ambition to jumpstart what seems like a colossal turkey in the remaking: Cleopatra.
What’s the revelation here? That Hollywood is a back-bitey place? Really? Well hold the front page! I doubt that anyone on the receiving end is truly offended by any of this. On the contrary, if it plays out the way it usually does when someone’s been indiscreet, Jolie will simply bank the insults as future bargaining chips. Maybe Cleopatra will be foisted on us after all. And anyway, a little transient shame never did anyone any real harm. It’s good for the soul.
Hollywood accounting practices actually mean that net points (a share of the profits after every single expense from now until Doomsday has been deducted) are meaningless, there to soothe egos rather than for stashing away as a retirement nest egg. There are no profits in Hollywood; x(net)=0. It’s the E=mc2 of Tinseltown. They are magicked away, so that people on net points get nothing. Empires – or at least, movie moguls’ mansions in Bel Air – have been built on this.
So if Sony wants to make this go away it can offer Lawrence the additional 2% of nothing and, just like Woody Allen, everybody’s happy. Hollywood sexism won’t end with this revelation – but on the whole, it might be a good thing to see it exposed in this way.
Racism? Joking about Obama and Django Unchained was certainly racist. But again, who knew Hollywood could be such a thing? The same Hollywood, that is, which seems to have racism stitched into its DNA, from DW Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation, excerpts of which were used as recruitment tools by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, to William Friedkin’s recent execrable, anti-Arab Rules of Engagement. Let alone the lack of colour-blind casting.
So by exposing the casual racism of these email exchanges, the hackers have, by the law of unintended consequences, performed a sort of public duty.
Freedom of expression
Which brings us to the heart of this: freedom of expression. Shutting down the movie and trying to imagine it never happened is shameful. Firstly, there’s the suspicion that Sony executives have cancelled merely to hide their embarrassment at all these, and more, revelations (although it may be foolish of them to think that cancelling the film will stop the flow of indiscreet emails). Then there’s a question of whether this has anything to do with regional politics in East Asia – Sony is, after all, a Japanese company. But worst of all is that Sony has surrendered not just in the face of a terrorist threat, but one that, if it’s real, is directly state-sponsored.
There is an alternative. Sony could say to the hackers and their presumed state puppet masters: thanks for bringing such shameful acts and utterances to our attention – we’ve learned a lot – and, in return, we want to make this a learning experience for you too. You can learn how freedom of expression works. We’ll release our film and you are welcome to come over and shoot your own comedy about our political leaders. We even have a White House set somewhere – use that! Then we could put both pictures out at the same time and compare opening weekend box-office takings in Variety over lattes and skinny muffins.
Most of all, though, Sony must tell the hackers: we have to release our film – and our cinema chains must show it. Because if we don’t we’re sending out a message that you can shut us down with the mere utterance of a barely credible threat. And we have to do this not just because we have to defend the idea of freedom of expression, but because allowing you to get away with this will encourage you to believe you can get away with anything.
You cannot be in a position to make similar threats about something far more important. Say, a documentary about your brutal gulags, or an investigative report about your regime’s practices of torture and murder.
If this film isn’t released, North Korea will inevitably be tempted to try and shut down more filmmakers and journalists with similar stupid threats.