Sony pulls the plug on ‘The Interview’ along with freedom of expression.

KJUThe upcoming release of the Seth Rogan-James Franco comedy caper ‘The Interview’ has been officially canned by Sony Pictures, marking the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the movie, and indeed the studio.

The movie’s fictional plot revolves around an assassination attempt on North Korea’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong-un by our aforementioned leads. Here is the film’s synopsis from The Internet Movie Database:

Dave Skylark and producer Aaron Rapoport run the celebrity tabloid show “Skylark Tonight.” When they land an interview with a surprise fan, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, they are recruited by the CIA to turn their trip to Pyongyang into an assassination mission.

You can view the trailer here, which is still up at the time of posting. As you can see, this is comedic farce at its most potent and obvious. Needless to say, we are not dealing with a sensitive game changing political exposé here. The movie was scheduled for release on Christmas day in the U.S, but its future now hangs precariously in the balance after Sony confirmed they have scrapped all current plans for its release, without indicating when – or if – the movie will even be released at all.

I’ll try to produce the timeline of events which led us to this decision, but please feel free to highlight any inaccuracies or thoughts in the comments section, and I shall note them where necessary.

A little while back our mainstream news media – with righteous indignation – decided that leaking hacked personal data, specifically photos was a gross violation of peoples’ rights1.

All bets were off however when Sony’s firewall became the latest to be leaped. After undergoing what appears to be an ethics transplant, the mainstream media proceeded to reproduce Sony associates’ personal email exchanges here, there and everywhere.

Whatever your view on a person’s right to have their private correspondences remain private2 the subsequent leaks from said computer hack did not paint Sony execs in a particularly positive light. Rather than focus on the salacious, and particularly dull revelations about who’s sleeping with whom and which exec said what about which movie star, my concern is how Sony have acted specifically in relation to ‘The Interview’ and how this has larger ramifications for freedom of expression in a post 9/11 society.

Those claiming responsibility for hacking Sony’s computer servers go by the name of “The Guardians Of Peace”. By circumventing the security protocols on Sony’s servers, they’ve managed to obtain and leak several upcoming movies, sensitive employee details and a plethora of private email correspondences between Sony bigwigs.

At first, North Korean officials refused to confirm direct involvement, but lauded the hacks and theft of intellectual property, as a ‘righteous deed’ and even described the movie, which they can’t have actually seen as an act of terrorism and war3.

However, credible information has since come to light which suggests the hack was in fact carried out at the behest of North Korean Government.

Rumblings that there may be larger political concerns surrounding ‘The Interview’ were first heard back in August, when rumours emerged that Sony Pictures had requested new edits be made to The Interview4. These edits related specifically to (spoiler alert) a scene where Kim Jong-Un’s head is obliterated in gory and explosive glory.

This rumour was later confirmed to be true courtesy of a leaked email exchange between actor/producer Seth Rogen and Sony Executive Amy Pascal. It seems Pascal was pressured to request edits to the ‘offensive’ scene by president of Sony, Kazuo Hirai5

In these exchanges, we see how Rogen responded to the edit requests:

“We will make it less gory. There are currently four burn marks on his face. We will take out three of them, leaving only one. We reduce the flaming hair by 50% … The head explosion can’t be more obscured than it is because we honestly feel that if it’s any more obscured you won’t be able to tell its exploding and the joke won’t work. Do you think this will help? Is it enough?”

This obviously wasn’t enough given a follow-up email from Rogen:

“This is it!!! We removed the fire from the hair and the entire secondary wave of head chunks. Please tell us this is over now. Thanks so much!!”

As we can see, Seth Rogen appears to be rightly bemused at having to compromise his work due to a concern for the feelings of North Korean Theocrats.

Sony, rather than support their creative talent and uphold freedom of expression, moved not only to dilute their product by way of censorship, but in an act of cowardice, erased all traces of their involvement in the project altogether. In leaked emails available on the Daily Beast, you can read how fearful Sony execs ordered all Sony branding to be removed from marketing material.

The scheduled cinematic release of the movie remained on track at this point, but this is where things take a rather nasty turn. The following threat was released from ‘The Guardians Of Peace6”:

“We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places “The Interview” be shown, including the première, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.
Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made.
The world will be full of fear.
Remember the 11th of September 2001.
We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.
(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)
Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
All the world will denounce the SONY.

 

 

More to come…”

This declaration is in no uncertain terms an act of terrorism. Any attempt to achieve a political goal with violence, or threats of violence fits the definition perfectly. Fortunately, the best information available from The Department of Homeland Security suggests this threat is not credible enough to warrant overt significant concern. So how would Sony and Cinema venues across the United States respond to this sinister bullying? How would they respond to a crackpot regime making demands of their ‘art’? By upholding the constitution? By raising a symbolic middle-finger and asserting that they have the right to make films about whatever they want, whenever they want? Sadly not.

Firstly, Sony cancelled the New York premiere and its stars cancelled scheduled TV appearances to promote the movie.

Are Sony and Cinemas Right To Pull 'The Interview'?

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Disappointingly cinema chains AMC, Carmike, Cinemark, Cineplex and Regal also took the decision to pull or suspend the movie from their roster indefinitely7. You can’t help but think the ghost of the tragic Aurora shootings in 2012 haunted the meeting rooms where those decisions were made.

And, in the latest development, it seems Sony have pulled the movie completely8.

An official statement read:

“In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers …

Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

What I find particularly striking about this statement is the submissive tone it takes. Sony reiterates the importance of freedom of expression whilst begrudging its loss as though they are not the ones responsible for surrendering it so hastily. Perhaps the lack of venues willing to screen the movie meant a theatrical release simply no longer made financial sense.  Were no cinema chains willing to oppose fascism? In 2014, in America?

It seems along with cartoons, music videos, books and YouTube videos, fascists have once again decided for the rest of us what we can or cannot see. And they’ve achieved this not with convincing arguments, but by threats (and even acts) of violence. And worse still: we’re rewarding them for their efforts. When will a major studio or administration take an uncompromising view on the right to freedom of expression? Please let me know what you think of the situation in the comments section.

19/12/2014 Update – Select cinemas had planned to screen ‘Team America‘ in place of the ‘Interview’ in what could be viewed as an act of defiance.  Team America is a 2004 comedy which also take a satirical view of North Korea, and pokes fun at the late Kim Jong-il. Unfortunately, it appears the studio has pulled the plug on those plans too9.

24/12/2014 Update – Sony have reversed their decision and confirmed a ‘limited theatrical release’10. Freedom of expression has prevailed!

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  1. Anyone who leaks intimate private photos of anyone on the web is a scum bag in my opinion, I’m merely pointing out the lack of consistency and hypocrisy of some news media outlets on this topic of private data, whatever its form
  2. Some of the relevant email correspondences have been reproduced on this blog post, sourced from other reputable mainstream news outlets, but not leaked via this blog post. This is where I draw an ethical distinction. Right or wrong, thanks to our mainstream media, these emails have now in fact crossed the threshold of private information to public, whether we like it or not, given the expansive media coverage afforded to them already. This is not to be confused with reposting intellectual property such as movies and scripts, which is illegal regardless. I see no ethical contradiction in discussing/reprinting the emails sourced from reputable news outlets on this blog, however I would never personally leak personal or private data. Probably…
  3. North Korea denies ‘righteous’ hack attack on Sony, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-30366449
  4. The Hollywood Report, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/sony-altering-kim-jong-assassination-725092
  5. The Verge, http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/10/7366423/kaz-hirai-edits-the-interview
  6. Variety, http://variety.com/2014/film/news/sony-hackers-threaten-911-attack-on-movie-theaters-that-screen-the-interview-1201380712/
  7. Deadline, https://deadline.com/2014/12/sony-theater-owners-pull-the-interview-terror-threats-1201327612/
  8. Deadline, http://deadline.com/2014/12/sony-scraps-the-interview-1201328639/
  9. ‘Team America Pulled From Theatres Amid Sony Row’, Sky News, http://news.sky.com/story/1394555
  10. ‘Obama Hails Sony U-Turn Over The Interview’, Sky Newshttp://news.sky.com/story/1396928/obama-hails-sony-u-turn-over-the-interview

11 comments

  • I definitely think Sony should make the movie available on demand–audiences would get to see it and the filmmakers (and the studio) could recoup their investment. Also, KJU would be vexed. As for releasing it in theaters, what seems (and kind of is) cowardly is not irrational. Moviegoers will have trouble enjoying a comedy if they think the chance that they’ll be killed while watching it are even slightly higher than usual. Other studios don’t want *their* movies playing in the same theaters as The Terrorist Magnet. And Sony didn’t have many options once the theater chains refused to show it.

    Yes, it’s ridiculous to think that people could be killed over a comedy. But it has happened over books, drawings and YouTube videos, so it’s not impossible.

  • Team America: World Police. That happened. That is all.

  • Erudite as usual, GS! It’s all well and good for us in the US to “fight terror” in the ways we do but surely we’re strong and capable enough to choose to risk going to a cinema to see a comedy? Hope you continue to address this issue, as if you need more to do;)

  • I understand why some cinemas might be too scared to show the movie, but it’s disgusting. I think as this situation is actually cyber-warfare, the government should help them ensure their premises are safe so the movies can be screened. They definitely should be made available on-line, and via DVD/Blu-Ray. This is a comedy. Team America was hilarious and I’d love to see this one too. KJU is, imo, just making himself look a more of a fool by not laughing about this. But then he thought the ‘Onion’ article about him being sexy was for real.

    This is allowing one of the worst regime’s on earth to succeed in the only way it can, and it sucks. (I use the phrase purposefully – today Charles Krauthammer called Cuba “the worst regime in earth”. I think there are plenty worse, including North Korea.)

    Leaking of private e-mails is wrong. I can honestly say, as a matter of principle, I’ve never sought out private leaked e-mails or pics to read/look at, no matter what I think of the person concerned. Even Sarah Palin’s. Of course, I’ve been unable to avoid some of the reporting on them. If people weren’t so willing to read them and the media so willing to publish them, it wouldn’t happen so much, so I’m bit of a (insert rude word here) on the matter.

  • it’s their movie, it’s their (marketing) decision
    I don’t see any connection with freedom of expression

    • Stephen Knight

      A multimillion dollar U.S motion picture had a theatrical release date locked in, which was then pulled due to threats of violence relating to its content – and you don’t see the connection to freedom of expression? Have you looked?

      • I don’t think the threats were serious – they were silly actually
        Maybe they have other reasons to pull it (sony has been hacked before and they don’t want go through more trouble/costs)
        There would be a freedom of expression issue if the government decided not to allow the movie, against the company’s will, but that’s not the case

        • Amazing. Maybe hostages are not really victims of kidnapping, because the kidnapper never actually threatened their lives, or his threats were silly and not serious; maybe they had other reasons to not leave the building.

        • Stephen Knight

          Whether the threats were credible or not (I note they likely weren’t in the piece) is irrelevant. A dangerous precedent has been set. This is a freedom of expression issue. Just because it’s self-censorship in this case doesn’t mean it’s not an issue of free speech. Sony could have upheld their right to make movies about whatever they want (free speech) or pulled the film like they have (capitulation). This has larger ramifications for free speech in general. The message has been sent that we will capitulate to distant crackpot dictatorships at so much as a ‘silly’ threat of violence.

  • It took me a few hours and a lot of newspapers, feeds and blogs articles about this to fully understand what had happened: I honestly could not believe that a major film company was going to stop the release of a movie because of a silly threat! The act of these hackers is contradictory: “jokes about people and freedom of expression is wrong; and we demonstrate this using theft, violation of privacy, threats of violence and typical terrorist demands and excuses”. I’m still bewildered.

What do you think? Leave some comments!