Art Held Hostage: Why Sony Not Releasing “The Interview” Is Scary

You’re probably caught up to speed, but in case you aren’t:

Hackers, which may or may not be connected to North Korea, found Sony’s new film, The Interview, quite disagreeable — so much so that they hacked the unmerciful shit out of Sony (thus releasing emails and scripts and other internal company information, which our news media flocked to like a pack of starving vultures) and threatened terror attacks in the style of 9/11 if the film was released. Some big theater chains understandably capitulated, and then Sony folded like a paper airplane, too. Sony won’t even release the film on VOD. (At Time Magazine: Everything We Know About Sony, The Interview, and North Korea.)

Ha ha ha, where were those hackers when someone decided to make that new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie? Am I right, guys? Huh? Huh? Ha ha ha ha OH GODDAMNIT DON’T YOU DARE LAUGH. That was a trap. I just trapped you. You thought we were engaging in some snarky pop culture japery, didn’t you? You fool. You fool. This shit isn’t funny. As a writer? As a guy who creates things for a living? This is utterly fucking terrifying.

This proves that hackers, terrorists, and enemy nations now have a vote as to the media we make and the stories we see. That’s blood gone cold scary. This sounds like the plot of a Neal Stephenson or William Gibson novel, or worse, the plot of a novel by someone trying to emulate them. (“The sky was the color of a movie theater screen not carrying Sony’s THE INTERVIEW.”)

Disagreeable and controversial art is an essential element of our cultural discourse.

It is vital that art — no matter who finds it uncomfortable — be allowed its day. (Yes, provided of course that the art or the creation of that art isn’t actually violating anybody’s actual rights or breaking any actual laws.) Any erosion of this freedom to make and distribute art is frightening. It sets an unholy precedent. It suggests a world where, if any one group big or small finds something you’re making disagreeable, then you shouldn’t get to tell that story — and we shouldn’t get to see, read, or hear that story.

The Great Dictator? A Clockwork Orange? Straw Dogs? Bowling for Columbine? What about books like Handmaid’s Tale — or, since it has generated controversy, Harry Potter? Or television shows like MASH, or Soap, or All in the Family? Or, drum roll please, South Park?

Imagine that one person, one group, or one nation rejected one or all of those.

And threatened not just the tellers of those stories but, in fact, the audience, too?

What’s doubly puzzling to me is some of the reactions I’m seeing online.

Well, worse things have happened this week.

Yeah, no, I know. That’s not wrong, and I dunno if you’ve noticed, but the news around the globe on a good day is a horror-spackled murderfest shit-show. CIA torture, schools attacked, police brutality, racism, rape, all of it. Are those things all worse than The Interview not being released? Sure. Yeah. Yes. But, I want you to consider a few things. First, we can be upset about more than one thing. Meaning, we can manifest and maintain anger and fear over lots of the world’s horror-spackled murderfest shit-show problems all at one horrible time. Second, this one in particular is pertinent to me, and this blog, and probably all of you because we are the tellers of stories and also the listeners of stories. Third and for me, the most important?

This cuts to the heart of a very significant issue — because all of those things we’re talking about, the police brutality, the CIA, the institutional racism and sexism and rape culture? Well, part of our way of fighting back against such horror is through our media. With news, social media, and also, through storytelling. Stories are vital cultural mechanisms. Any threat — any threat at all! — to our ability to share information and to criticize the world around us is scary.

This isn’t a freedom of speech issue, it’s a money issue.

It’s actually neither, really. This isn’t a constitutional freedom of speech issue, because all parties involved are free-thinking (if somewhat craven) companies. It’s also not a money issue because I’m fairly sure that Sony is better off releasing this than, y’know, not ever releasing it. It’s going to cost Sony over $100 million to not release a film they have already made.

(Further, this controversy has probably done more for The Interview than any actual marketing or advertising could manage. If Sony would suck it up and release this movie today on VOD, smart money says they’d make bank.)

The issue here isn’t censorship or money, the issue here is that art is under attack by an enemy entity. This isn’t your standard capitalism. This isn’t vote with your dollar where people have chosen to not go see a movie because they think it’s shitty or toxic or whatever — this is a criminal attack on a company accompanied by a terroristic threat and the company has capitulated. And… nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

The Interview isn’t art, Chuck, so who really cares? It’s tasteless.

Well, for one, obviously I care.

For two, you’re attempting to speak on the quality of the film — a film that few people have actually seen. It’s not particularly fair to excoriate the quality of movie if you haven’t seen it.

For three, who gives a hot wet shit about quality? What, we’re only supposed to make movies that everyone universally agrees are good? You get a preliminary 75% on Rotten Tomatoes or you’re denied an audience? YOU’RE EITHER PIXAR OR GTFO.

I suspect that The Interview will never be released and hung on the walls of the Louvre. For all I know, the movie sucks righteously. I wasn’t impressed with the trailers, really — that said, I’ve also liked most of what Rogen and Franco have done. I’ve seen some odd potshots against the two of them during all this. Hey, fine, you don’t like them — I do, and enjoyed Pineapple Express and This Is The End — but really, this isn’t about your feelings regarding a particular actor, writer, director, or artist. And I say “artist” in the general sense, not in the “creator of masterpieces” sense. We’re not here to debate what is good art, bad art, or art at all.

We’re here to talk about a threat to our ability to create and share art.

I’m sure if the shoe were on the other foot — if someone created a movie about assassinating a sitting US president — then we’d understand. Sony should’ve known what was going to happen — it was a bad idea.

Do you hear yourself? Seriously?

I’m not a super-big fan of blaming victims, and that’s what you’re doing here. You might as well slap a bumper sticker on your car that says I STAND WITH KIM JONG UN.

Oh, and by the way? Heard of a film called Death of a President? Detailing the fictionalized assassination of George W. Bush while George W. Bush was in office? I don’t seem to remember us burning down the UK because they made that film. I don’t recall us as a nation hacking them or threatening the creators of the film or FilmFour for releasing it.

(And let’s also recall that Kim Jong Il was killed in Team America.)

This is just like any other politically correct protest of media.

Yeah, no, you’re totally right, except for the part where a protest doesn’t hack open a company’s private data and then put a terrorist cherry on this shit-cream sundae by threatening actual harm to the audience in part referencing an actual attack that happened on our soil.

I support anybody’s right to protest media. Just as one can tell disagreeable or controversial stories, one can also — and should also! — protest the stories they find disagreeable or controversial. It’s part of the cultural discourse. But this isn’t that. Repeat: this isn’t that. This is a whole other level. This is illegal. This is violent. Not the same thing at all.

Hell, I support North Korea protesting this film. I’d get that. “WE STRONGLY OPPOSE THE RELEASE OF THIS FILM,” they could say. Sure. Fair enough. High-five, NK.

Again, though: this ain’t that.

So: what’s the solution?

I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Maybe there isn’t one to be found. I have no idea if the geopolitical stage is so fraught and fragile that our country will do nothing about what feels like an attack on American companies and, by proxy, our audiences and our ideals. Maybe America has made its own bed here by being so epically shitty around the globe. If the snakes are out of the can and nobody does anything about this — then? Expect more to come. Expect groups and nations weaponized by technology. Expect that your private information is now public. Assume that the stories you want to tell are now a risk. To you. To companies. To your audience.

That turns my bone marrow to an icy slush. Maybe you’re okay with it, I dunno.

All that being said –

It’s ironic, isn’t it? A troubling, too-goofy-for-satire reversal:

The Interview is a story about members of the media assassinating a North Korean leader.

But the opposite happened: because of The Interview, North Korea assassinated our media.

Welcome to the weird new world in which we live.

158 comments

  • If I was Sony, I would leak the film. Let it be seen by the world for free. Strength in numbers, right? Common sense allows us to make up our own mind about events, real or fictional. Nobody forces you to watch it. Use your free will and say: no, I’m not watching that. Imposing your will on others? Tyranny. It cannot stand.

  • Chuck, it’s your last point that really worries me. Now that Sony has set a precedent of folding under pressure, it’s only a matter of time before some other cranky nation tries it.

  • What’s next, telling us who we can’t use in our stories to express ourselves? Settings that are appeasing and plots that are appropriate. This is a new way to make art bland, to prevent people from thinking one way or another. Instead of coming from our own dysfunctional government it now comes from another dysfunctional government. This is pretty ridiculous. Now that we know who the hackers are we should go back to showing the film. And if anything happens we’ll know who to aim the missiles at.

  • What I find particularly interesting is that now that this has impacted a major studio and a picture starring men, a lot of attention has been paid to it. Women artists (especially gamers) have been under attack for years and while I know that some (like you) have paid attention, it hasn’t been major news.

    Maybe we can examine the terrorists of #gamergate as well.

  • They folded at the risk of bad PR. That’s to do with money. So although I appreciate what you’re saying this is more about Sony as a financial institution not wanting to risk yet another huge embarrassing failure this year than to do with any real concern for citizen safety or censorship. Let’s not start getting it twisted.

  • You’re all missing something just as important.

    Notice the rhetoric in the media. It’s being called a “Cyber 9/11″. And Sony is milking that for every drop.

    The problem with that, is that Sony is doing it to distract everyone from the email dump. Several governors, prosecutors, congressmen and more are going to be facing arrest, disbarment, impeachment and worse.

    Sony and their buddies at the MPAA and RIAA have been exceptionally bad.

    So yes, feel bad about the terrible message being sent to criminals, but understand the reason behind such a stupid decision.

    https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20141217/06353329462/attorney-general-downplays-ties-to-mpaa-despite-letter-he-sent-google-revealed-as-written-mpaa.shtml

    • December 19, 2014 at 11:09 AM // Reply

      I started following this story on Reddit back before Thanksgiving, and it seems to have started with an emailed ransom demand to Sony from a group calling themselves “God’sApstls” that may or may not have been an inside job by former employees. The actual demands of the group were not made public, but they said something like “you know us,” and gave Sony a few days to capitulate or have their information released. There was speculation among the tech community that those multi terabytes of information were collected over a period of months, and not just gathered over a weekend, as the news has been reporting.

      NOWHERE in any of the publicly available GOP or God’sApstls demands was there any mention of The Interview, at least not until the media speculated upon it being a possible trigger. Then suddenly this was all about North Korea and now it’s about violence related to movie opening.

      Call me skeptical, but I grew up with Bradbury and Levin and I’m reading way too much about this incident, but this does not sound like government-sponsored terrorism AT ALL. It wasn’t government terrorism when Sony got hacked a few years ago. Like a LOT of the tech community, I think this is a personal grudge against Sony and Sony’s playing politics with things like SOPA.

      Sony is desperate to spin this story, and they’ve tried to prevent the media from reporting on it. If I were the CEO, I’d LOVE the North Korea terrorism angle because it distracts from what is actually going on behind the scenes with Sony and our government.

  • The significant issue seems to be missing from this article. What about The Interview has North Korean hackers so upset that they would threaten Sony? Aside from the writer’s obvious dedication to artistic rights (to be commended), the writer failed to mention – or perhaps it is a secret? – what about the movie has NK so upset?

  • I understand the point, and mostly I agree. But to make it sound like this is some strange new attack that will lead us to a “new world” of fear is just arrogent and down right BS. Art faces this kind of violent threat in countries all over the world. It always has. We are just used to the oppressors to be some manical government-type entity. Suddenly it hits closer to home and now everyone has an opinion.

  • When “300” came out, Iran protested bitterly, because it made Persians look so bad. But they didn’t threaten people’s lives or launch cyber attacks. This is an unacceptable escalation.

  • I’m sure a lot of this had to do with Sony lawyers convincing the suits that if they showed “The Interview” and someone got hurt in an attack, Sony would be left holding the bag.

    This whole thing is outrageous. It makes me want to start a new career making movies. But only movies featuring the Un’er — the Un’er as a pederast, wearing a skirt, having donkey sex, goat sex, eating feces, and whatever other things that are going to drive his depraved mind into absolute conniption fits.

    Oh, and I’m going to send him an engraved invitation to come to my house for a viewing – and then I’ll make a movie about that, and of course in the end he ends up in a wood chipper.

  • Is no one recogizing that this is a bullshit publicity stunt engineered by Sony to try to get people to see a crappy movie as a symbol of protest against a petty dictator that has no power outside his shitty little mudhole of a country? If you weren’t planning to see this before the horrible challenge to Americam Freedom, don’t go see it after Sony “courageously” reverses themselves, which will happen the next Friday they think is winnable at the box office. Deep breaths, people.

    • Listen, shit like that is fascinating from a fictional standpoint, but unless you actually have some evidence here, it’s a pretty wild and cuckoopants accusation.

      Especially when you consider that this publicity stunt involves Sony stabbing itself in the kidneys with the release of its emails and private information. Sony very seriously got fucked here.

      Further, *right now* is when the movie will win at the box office. Literally release it today — or at least next week — and it’d probably do gangbusters. But that window starts to close because the American public has a very short memory.

      So, at least until there’s some evidence of something going on that isn’t — I think you can stuff the conspiracy stuff back in a drawer.

      — c.

  • Money-wise, I believe once the five major theater chains folded, Sony calculated that it would make more money writing off The Interview as a total loss and cashing the insurance check, than they would releasing it on VOD and claiming a partial loss. I *hope* they’re not stupid enough to think caving will make the hackers go away, but who knows. In any case they can at least claim they’re making a sound financial decision (which I’d like to see Nate Silver validate, if possible – he seems to have overlooked this point).

    Anyone remember Big Trouble? It was a (pretty good) book by Dave Barry that got adapted into a (not entirely terrible) movie starring Tim Allen. Unfortunately the movie included a plot involving a nuclear bomb and an airplane, and it was slated for release shortly after 9/11/2001. The original release got canceled, and when it did come out it got no publicity and was effectively buried. Careers probably suffered, but I doubt the studio sweat it too much.

    The point being – Hollywood ain’t brave. More importantly it’s incredibly risk averse. Movies get buried for a lot of stupid reasons that don’t involve massive cyberattacks. In a lot of ways what happened to The Interview is business as usual.

    Except.

    By all appearances Sony and the theater chains capitulated to a large-scale bomb threat. Maybe they had reason to fear another data dump, but I find it hard to conceive that any actual violence would have resulted from releasing this movie.

    Again, there’s some sound financial issues there, mainly the liability of the theaters if violence DID happen. But the appearance is that large corporations are vulnerable to anonymous threats of violence with nothing to back them. Even if some of them deserve a bit of threatening, that’s a horrible precedent.

    Imagine someone wants to kill Facebook. They very publicly threaten stock exchanges, saying they’ll attack if they don’t delist the stock. Without anything happening, Facebook stock still falls on the risk. If just one exchange actually delists the stock, it craters. Apply to any publicly traded company you care to name.

    Maybe there’s a book you don’t like. Threaten the publisher, but also threaten the distributors and the retailers. Someone in the supply chain is likely to back down before they risk violence over what is, in their eyes, just one book that probably won’t sell anyway.

    As a financial decision, Sony’s probably doing the right thing for them. The chains too. But as a precedent setter this whole thing stinks.

    • David raises good points. I wanted to add: know who else is risk-averse? The public who’ve heard about the bomb threats and decide not to spend their money at the cinema chains that would have been carrying the film. Even if the threats were not credible, which most reports are saying, there’s still probably a significant enough number of people who’d skip the movies that day to have a big financial impact on cinemas, this film’s release and the numbers for any other films showing in the same cinemas.

      In other words, I believe that the capitulating to “terroristic threats” is only a portion of what happened, and the bottom line of all the involved businesses is another portion.

      • Risk-averse for myself? Maybe not. But for my family, for my kids? Different story. My wife was totally against taking the kids to the theaters to see ANY movie during the holidays before Sony decided to pull THE INTERVIEW. I doubt that she was the only one. Bigger movies than THE INTERVIEW are out there, depending on young viewership, and they may have been impacted a whole bunch. Plus, can a theater afford to take the hit in holiday season attendance, which is usually a pretty big thing for them, right?

        I hate that the terrorists win, but I really don’t want to risk my family to make a point, either…

  • Just to be clear, are you saying anything created – no matter how distasteful or controversial, no matter how much the sole purpose of it is to push buttons, perhaps even anger – is art?

    • Welcome to Art History 101, then complain to Andy Warhol.

      This is the argument: Ever since Andy Warhol made prints of soap boxes and put them on display in an art gallery anything you have the balls to put up in a public place and call “art” technically counts as far as the art world is concerned. It’s not all “good” art, but yes, in the Post-modern art world it is indeed art.

      I spent 4 years and $40,000 dollars to learn that.

  • Ahhhh, Sony. Good ol’ Jap-Am. Did Japan forgive us for that thing we did?
    Anyways, maybe they should sell it to Universal. Universal wouldn’t let terrorists scare them. Universal scares terrorists! Universal will make a theme park centered around The Interview in which in the midst of watching The Interview terrorist-looking (that’s a thing) mofo’s will run in peppering everyone with chocolate treats.
    Orrrrr, Sony is playing on hype and turning this simple comedy into the next BIG THING, due out Friday, June 12th 2015 in theaters EVERYWHERE! Even N. Korea.
    I haven’t educated myself be reading all the truths on the Internet, but if I was a betting man, The Interview will be enjoyed by the masses, somehow, someway. Perhaps through counter terrorism measures hacking into Sony and threatening opposite what those other bored kids did in their dorm room at MIT.

  • Thank you for being sensible about this. I saw some comments on Tumblr (Yes, I know. I know.) about how it was good that this horrible racist movie wouldn’t be released and all I could think about was, ‘yeah, well, let’s see how funny you think it is, when a movie with an LGBT story gets cancelled because of fundie hackers and terrorists’.
    We have a saying in my home country, which is often quoted, and sometimes abused in the public debate, but which I think fits this rather well, ‘Freedom for Loki as well as for Thor’.

  • It’s already happened in this century, you’re kinda late to the party.

    What’s left of the newspaper world knows that publishing a political cartoon that makes fun of Mohammed is rolling the dice when it comes to the terrorists response. And I’m talking about some paper in the Netherlands, not the Dubai Daily.

  • Now, I must put this across, I am not for or against North Korea nor Kim Jung-Un but my reasoning still stands. Don’t threaten someone’s like as a joke or in comedy and expect that nothing will happen as a result, it’s just not smart.

    When free speech is not free speech; when you threaten to kill someone that is a living person, using their actual name and/or likeness, it’s no longer free speech, it’s a death threat.

    The one thing people have to realize that if somone did the same thing but in a different country and they cited President Obama as the target. Do you honesty think that our government would take that lightly? All it takes is for someone that is mentally unstable to make an attempt, granted, it might not be successful but still.

    America is not well liked around the world, simply put, it’s our own stupidity and sheer arrogance that turns people off. Ironically, this movies proves it, unfortunately.

    This movie’s premise is abhorrent trash thinly veiled as controversial art.

  • Need correct my above statement:

    “Now, I must put this across, I am not for or against North Korea nor Kim Jung-Un but my reasoning still stands. Don’t threaten someone’s like as a joke or in comedy and expect that nothing will happen as a result, it’s just not smart.”

    Should read as:

    “Now, I must put this across, I am not for or against North Korea nor Kim Jung-Un but my reasoning still stands. Don’t threaten someone’s life like as a joke or in comedy and expect that nothing will happen as a result, it’s just not smart.”

  • By all means, debate away. In the meantime, I’ll keep reading, watching and/or commenting whatever I like, dislike, find controversial or *insert Ignore button here*. You, Mr Wendig, I like. No offense meant.

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