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Categories: Features

Cameron Johnson breaks down the fuss surrounding the U.S. comedy The Interviewand the recent hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and what it says about the film industry and the media.  

Something unprecedented, scary, and more than likely game-changing is happening in Hollywood right now. Sony Pictures, after on December 17th finding that their new Kim Jong Un assassination comedy “The Interview” was boycotted by theaters across America due to terrorist threats, have decided to scrap the release of the film completely. The company have revealed that they have “no further release plans for the film”.

The controversy has been looming over the slapstick comedy, directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the two also directed “This is the End”, the critically-acclaimed apocalyptic comedy, last year), pretty much since the film was announced earlier this year. In June, the government of North Korea condemned the film, considering it an “act of war” that would be met with a “merciless” retaliation if it were to be released. 

Initially, the fire consuming the situation died down as most people scoffed at North Korea, a country known for having more bark than bite. Where could North Korea, a country where the people are forbidden from using the Internet “because the government is concerned that people would see things that would make them feel unfairly critical toward the West”, obtain the technology to follow through with their threats?**

Movie fans forgot about “The Interview” for a while, concerned more by awards season buzz and the year’s summer blockbusters, and when the first few teasers were released, they seemed to show the film more as a sophomoric farce full of gross-out humor and cheap shots rather than a serious political satire without anything meaningful to say about North Korea, America, or the world. Early reviews confirmed the film’s affinity for low-brow humor, with Slant Magazine’s Chris Cabin condemning the film – and others of similar vein (remember “Team America”?) – for using “major global issues to cheaply dress up what is two hours of hit-and-miss erection jokes”.

But the nonchalance was not to be. On November 24th, as the film was beginning to pick up steam again as increased marketing began for its Christmas release, distributor Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked by a group who called themselves “Guardians of Peace”, now widely believed to be an organization affiliated with, or hired by, the North Korean government to expose and threaten Sony over the upcoming release of “The Interview”. 

Sony executives Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal

The hackers leaked a plethora of incriminating information from Sony, from emails sent between executives Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin to entire films such as “Mr Turner” and “Annie”. For a few days the focus was once again taken off of “The Interview” in favor of exposing Hollywood “secrets”, from the nastiness, bluntness, and even racism (though a few have defended the comments as jokes) of exchanges between the aforementioned producers and satisfying suspicions that Angelina Jolie is “spoiled” and that “Oscar” is an oft-mentioned word when negotiating with Leonardo DiCaprio

What disappointed – if not shocked – me about the hack is that people were more concerned with reaping the benefits of the leaked material than defending Sony as the obvious victims of the situation. We read as much of the leaked material as we could and acted shocked that the people in Hollywood say things just as daft as everyone else in the free-speaking world.

Yes, Sony might have asked for it by producing “The Interview”, but were they really in the wrong for that either? It’s a film, a work of art (however low), and an expression of free speech and in this modern world should be treated as such.

Back when #Celebgate was all over the news, almost no one (and rightfully so) was in defense of the hackers, but with this Sony is being laughed at, torn apart, and abused because the naked truth – and humanity – behind the people working for its company has been revealed. 

When people’s personal information, including salaries and budgets and scripts in this case, is distributed to the public without the consent of those private people, it should be considered a crime, not an all-you-can-eat buffet. As this article by Andrew Wallenstein of Variety points out, “rest assured that SPE chairman Michael Lynton would probably rather you see his private parts than the company’s movie budgets.”  Is it a double standard for the media to victim-blame Sony after having defended the celebrities that were hacked earlier this year?

For better or for worse, the shocking events of the last couple of days have allowed us to forget about the unfortunate media frenzy that was the Sony hacking and focus more on the increasingly possible international crisis surrounding “The Interview”. On December 17th, just a week before the film’s intended Christmas Day release, the hacker group Guardians of Peace posted threats online that they would attack any theaters who dared to screen “The Interview”, including the statement “remember the 11th of September 2001.”

The threats provoked many American theaters to cancel their screenings of the film for the safety of their patrons; fair enough, though by doing that they were effectively negotiating with terrorists and “letting the bad guy win”.

On the one hand, the threats could be real and removing the film from cinemas could stop the next World War, but on the other, significantly bigger hand, the threats could be just that – threats. 

Sony gave in to the threats, too, pretty soon after most major theaters chains in America had pulled the film, and decided to undo their release altogether. Now it’s unclear when – if ever – we’ll be able to see the film in theaters, or even on video. If the threats are real, some point out, couldn’t the hacker just attack Netflix or Amazon if Sony were to release the interview on those?

Sony’s decision sets an interesting and incredibly controversial precedent for Hollywood. Could a single threat, no matter how unfounded, force free speech to be curbed so a person or group can feel slightly less offended? Is art falling into the grasp of politics and the media? We’ll have to wait for these questions to be answered, but it seems we’re getting more and more answers by the minute as new updates come in from this tornado of a story. 

Sony made the safe, conservative decision to protect the wishes of the theaters who removed the film from their programming, and they were really only following the trend of theater after theater closing anyway. Though I wished they’d have continued with the release of the film in the name of free expression, I can’t really blame them for delaying the film, especially because the eventual release of the film, if it does come, will probably be far more successful now than it ever was meant to be before all this controversy. 

I think in this case it’s the media we have to blame. The hypocritical, overexcited, trivial media who made more hype over the situation than it was worth, causing a wave of cowardice across the United States that decided freedom of speech and expression just wasn’t worth the effort. Let’s hope we don’t see anything similar in the future. 

It’s a shame Franco and Rogen haven’t been standing up for their film as much as they should. Maybe it isn’t them who are stopping themselves from saying anything of the situation, but their Twitter accounts have disappointingly been avoiding any of the controversy as of late. What’s more, they’ve stopped making public appearances in support of the film now. Sure, it won’t be shown in theaters anymore, but isn’t this bigger than just the economics of it all?

They have the chance to be heroes of free speech, but they haven’t really taken the chance. 

Maybe it’s because the film itself isn’t worth the effort. The clip of Kim Jong Uns assassination from the film that has leaked is probably the most underwhelming rendition of what could have been a great scene that I have ever seen. It’s passionless and lazy. 

I’ll probably find the film at least mildly funny when I do get to see it – “This is the End” was one of my favorite comedies ever, after all – but I can’t help but think this has been one great opportunity missed after another for everyone in this situation. All the victims in this situation have been playing their part to a T and we’ve absolutely let the bad guys win. I don’t think it’s a time to blame, just to be disappointed. 

**The linked article is an eye-witness account of North Korea by a western tourist rather than an official report, and as such should be taken with a grain of salt. 

By Cameron Johnson, interim editor of The Spread.

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Posted on Dec 18, 2014

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