The end of The Interview?

The "terrorists" have won


The terrorists won.

Well, “terrorists.” It’s still pretty murky who the Guardians Of Peace really are, and what their real motives were for threatening to unleash actions equivalent to “the 11th of September, 2001” on any movie theatre willing to screen The Interview this Christmas. And yes, it’s extremely unlikely that any such action would have taken place.

But you shout “9/11” in a crowded media landscape, and you scare the shit out of a whole lot of people. You get your story on the news. You get the owners of those movie theatres very nervous about their liability in case of panic or a copycat attack, and in no time at all those movie theatres are releasing statements in which they express the utmost concern for the safety of their patrons, and capitulating to the wishes of the people who promised violence.

And then, in record time, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced that The Interview would not be released on Christmas Day. Or, it seems, at all the studio appears to have ruled out any other platform, including disc or video-on-demand service.

This isn’t a rational reaction. This is appeasement.

I haven’t seen The Interview – the Toronto press screening was supposed to happen later tonight – so I can’t comment on its political value or even whether it’s funny or not. I know I was looking forward to it I really enjoyed Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s previous directorial effort, This Is The End, and I was hoping they could bring a similar irreverence to a story about a pair of journalists (Rogen and James Franco) sent into North Korea to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong-un.

Taking shots at North Korea probably didn’t seem all that dangerous at the time. Plenty of other movies have treated the isolated nation as a paper tiger – no one batted an eye when Trey Parker and Matt Stone cast Kim Jong-il as the villain of their marionette epic Team America: World Police, or when MGM decided to recast the invading force in their 2011 Red Dawn remake as North Koreans rather than the Chinese. But making The Interview at Sony – a Japanese corporation – might have been a more specific provocation than anyone figured.

I say “might” because, again, we still don’t know whether North Korea is really behind the cyberattack that crippled Sony in November, releasing into the wild the personal data of thousands of employees, five feature films and a massive trove of e-mails.

The entertainment media has turned the e-mails into a series of weirdly schaudenfraudey news beats, as though the worst thing about the hacking of Sony is that we can now snicker at this actor’s unreasonable demands or that actor’s enthusiastic e-mail style, But it was always a much more serious crime it took the threat of actual violence to bring that home.

More than a decade after 9/11, the possibility of terrorism breaking out at home still terrifies Americans. (Well, foreign-sponsored terrorism, anyway the nation seems to have accepted domestic terrorism, like school shootings and the targeting of abortion clinics, as an inconvenient reality. But that’s a different essay.)

Anyway, the instant the Guardians Of Peace brought up the possibility of attacks on movie theatres screening The Interview, it was all over. If there’s anything corporations fear more than terrorism, it’s litigation. But that wasn’t the most cowardly move of the day.

Once the major chains cancelled their bookings, Sony could have stepped up and done literally anything to keep The Interview alive. The studio could have scheduled a speedy release on iTunes, or announced a VOD strategy that would bring The Interview into millions of American homes the Guardians Of Peace couldn’t possibly rattle their sabres at everyone in America! Why, it’d be the ultimate expression of patriotism to watch James Franco and Seth Rogen bumble through a geopolitical hot zone in the comfort of your own living room!

But Sony didn’t do any of that. Instead, the studio announced it would be effectively disappearing The Interview, with no alternative release channel offered. Faced with the opportunity to do literally anything besides cave in to empty threats … Sony caved in to empty threats.

I suppose the studio might still sell the picture to another distributor, but that distributor would presumably have to pick up tens of millions in production costs – The Interview’s budget has been estimated at $40 million, with likely another $20 million on marketing on top of that – and the only distributors that can afford that kind of outlay are almost certainly unwilling to risk the Guardians Of Peace coming at them.

Even so, I have no doubt The Interview will surface in some form or another, and sooner rather than later. In the age of digital post-production, there must be a dozen different post-production facilities that worked on the film and retained some form of rough cut – and there must be at least one person in each of those facilities with the means to pull that cut out of the trash folder.

But this wasn’t about a single movie. It was about a studio being tested by an unknown agitator, and failing spectacularly. Sony’s behaviour guarantees that this will not be the last time a studio is forced into a corner by someone who wants to scuttle a given project. I wish I could think of a funny button to put on this piece, but I’m just gonna say what Rogen says at least once per movie.

We’re fucked.

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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