Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fear Wins Out: Why theater owners and Sony shouldn't have pulled "The Interview"

Movies are supposed to be vehicles for escape, but every so often, the real world roars into view. Such was the case yesterday, when Sony Pictures canceled the planned Christmas release of The Interview, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's comedy in which two media honchos (played by Rogen and James Franco) conspire with the U.S. government to assassinate North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. Shortly before this announcement, America's major theater chains—including AMC, Cinemark, and Regal—declared that they would not screen the film, citing safety concerns for their patrons stemming from a threat by Guardians of Peace, an anonymous group of hackers.

Given the current climate of geopolitical turmoil and overall anxiety, these cancellations were somewhat predictable and are, all things considered, explicable. But they are also wrong, and they paint a deeply disturbing picture of the movie industry's relationship with both its talent and its audience.

Some brief background: In November, Sony suffered an unprecedented hack of its data, with Guardians of Peace later claiming responsibility. (North Korea denied perpetuating the hack, though it did commend the hackers' actions; a recent federal investigation suggested North Korea was in fact complicit.) This past Tuesday, the hackers sent various emails containing vague threats suggesting that they intended to either bomb or somehow attack theaters showing The Interview on Christmas. (One such email: "Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the [theaters] at that time.) The Department of Homeland Security announced that it was investigating the threat but said it was not supported by "credible intelligence". Later that evening, Sony issued a statement indicating that it was not pulling the movie but that it would respect exhibitors who decided not to screen it. Yesterday, the major theater chains announced they wouldn't exhibit the film, prompting Sony to yank it entirely.

So here we are, and let's take a moment to acknowledge the sheer absurdity of where here is. I haven't seen The Interview—and I question whether the hackers have, though that hardly matters—but it is by all accounts a ridiculous movie that has no interest in taking itself seriously. This, presumably, is part of the fun, in the same way Goldberg and Rogen's This Is the End was fun because it took an objectively grave scenario (the apocalypse) and turned it into a hilarious meditation on male friendship and celebrity culture. Whether The Interview similarly capitalizes on the lunacy of its premise, I don't know, because I can't watch the fucking movie (at least, not until Sony inevitably releases it online, which will likely happen after the passage of what the studio's PR experts deem to be a decent interval). And the reason I can't watch it is that a handful of maniacs, who may or may not be affiliated with a country halfway around the world, possess one thing but lack another.

Specifically, what they possess is a truly fearsome grasp of computer technology (supposedly, the hack itself was extremely sophisticated). What they lack, of course, is a sense of humor, apparently perceiving The Interview's subject matter to be so grievously offensive as to constitute an act of war. (I'm involuntarily reminded of Dave Bautista's character in Guardians of the Galaxy, a man who is literally incapable of understanding metaphor and who, when informed that an idiom will go over his head, responds: "Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.") As a result of this supremely unfortunate combination, they have responded to a fake assassination with very real and tangible outrage. (At least, I assume it's real. It's possible they're just nihilists who want to watch the world burn, meaning they actually do have a sense of humor, albeit a loathsome one.) This outrage, in turn, has scared the hell out of a major American corporation, not to mention thousands of theater owners across the country. Franz Kafka couldn't have made this shit up.

But it's happening, and to be fair to Sony and the exhibitors, their reaction—to swiftly backpedal from The Interview like it's infected with plague—makes a certain degree of sense. Theater owners hardly wish to appear indifferent to their customers' safety, not least in the wake of the rampage in Colorado two years ago that left 12 people dead. Screening The Interview could also discourage patrons from visiting the multiplex at all, whereas they might otherwise attend a different movie during the lucrative Christmas season. And should something tragic actually occur, the prospect of civil liability is daunting, especially given that exhibitors could hardly claim such an event to be unforeseeable.

So I concede that there exist valid reasons, both ethical and economic, for theater owners to balk at screening The Interview. But I am nevertheless dismayed by this turn of events, which to me smacks of capitulation and cowardice. The lesson here, it appears, is that if you don't like a movie—if you disagree with its message or take offense to its content—the most effective way to speak out against it is not to denigrate its artistic merits but simply to threaten its audience. Annoyed that Exodus: Gods and Kings features white actors playing Middle-Eastern characters? Why mobilize your forces on Twitter when you can call in a bomb threat? Don't like Selma's depiction of Martin Luther King Jr.'s organizational efforts? The hell with writing a column, just send an anonymous email to exhibitors promising retribution. Gus Fring once said that "I don't believe fear to be an effective motivator", but he just owned a chicken restaurant, not a movie theater. Now, it seems, inducing fear—rather than encouraging discourse—is the most persuasive form of opposition.

I recognize that this reading may be a tad reductive. It is unlikely, at least in the short-term, that the cancellation of The Interview will result in a spate of similar terrorist tactics going forward. And despite Homeland Security's dismissal of the threat's credibility, Guardians of Peace is clearly capable of doing something, given the intricacy of its hack. (Can we pause for a moment to marvel at the irony of a group calling itself Guardians of Peace threatening to kill people for watching a movie?) The pragmatist in me wonders why, if the goal of terrorism is to actually murder people, the plotters would warn their targets of their plans in advance. But then, imputing rationality to terrorists is a dubious proposition, and I am in no way qualified to assess the legitimacy of this threat.

But neither, I suspect, are theater owners or movie studios. And the panic demonstrated here suggests not a measured decision but one borne out of blind fear, with minimal regard to the plausibility of the terrorists' intentions. It is easy to contend that any risk to safety is too great a risk, and certainly, it is a business' own prerogative whether to open its doors to consumers. Yet in their haste here to act in their customers' best interests, exhibitors have inadvertently undermined them. In surrendering to the hackers' insane whims, they are perpetuating the very dread that terrorists, through their inhumane behavior, hope to incite. And in attempting to snuff out retributive tactics, they are only encouraging them.

Equally troubling, if less immediate, are the implications that The Interview's cancellation has on the industry's artists. The extremity of The Interview's premise may seem unique, and admittedly, I can't imagine other projects currently gestating in which contemporary real-world figures are hypothetically murdered in over-the-top fashion. But I certainly can imagine any number of speculative screenplays whose content could be deemed controversial, provocative, or offensive. Indeed, much of art's power derives from its capacity to stimulate, unnerve, and even anger its audience. Will studios now hesitate to green-light such scripts out of reasonable fear that theater owners would decline to screen such inflammatory material? Will writers, seeking a paycheck, suppress their artistic ambitions in favor of safer, less contentious ideas?

These are difficult questions to grapple with, but I question whether theater owners and Sony grappled with them at all. Again, I do not entirely blame them. Refusing to screen The Interview was likely a sound short-term business decision, one they can support by spouting platitudes about safety and public concern. But I remain dispirited that, when presented with an opportunity to take a stand against purported terrorism, both Sony and the exhibitors declined to do so. Instead, they chose retreat, cloaking their cowardice in the guise of civic responsibility. Their customers may in fact feel safer in seven days' time, and some may argue that sacrificing one film is a small price to pay for that sense of security. But this is about more than just The Interview—it's about cherishing the sanctity of artistic expression. And if we abandon that, then I mourn the many other unmade movies we may never see.


Anonymous said...

Remove this post or all of your McNuggets will be stolen.

jdd said...

Might I suggest that you refrain from eating Korean (no offense intended to South Korea, but they are collateral damage) food and playing your PS4 for the foreseeable future in protest.

Maybe Sony and theater owners should have rolled the dice for the sake of our freedom?

Does this mean that Oliver Stone won't get to make his Putin film?

Just a few of my thoughts that immediately come to mind now that North Korea has robbed me of my right to see another bad James Franco and Seth Rogen movie.

Jeremy said...

Ha, we'll see about Stone, but it's worth pointing out that Steve Carell's planned thriller set in North Korea has already been scrapped.