Wednesday, December 24, 2014

That's a wrap?

One of my favorite parts of going to the movies is watching the trailers. I’m even a little superstitious. If the trailers are all bad it usually indicates that the film that I’m about to watch is going to be bad too. Likewise if the trailers are all great, there’s a cinematic masterpiece that I’m about to watch. Often it’s a mixed bag. Towards the end of the summer and early fall is the best because all of the Oscar hopeful movies start showing up in the previews. This year, though, there was this one trailer that within 15 seconds I knew was going to be something I’d never watch – in the movie theatre, online or even on free network television. Much to my amazement that very film has turned Hollywood upside down and right side up again while the President weighed in on how to run a studio.

The Korean text reads, "We will begin a war", 
"Do not trust these ignorant Americans!"
"The Interview" is now described by the media as a political satire. IMDB describes it as an action- comedy. Its trailer felt like a tragedy...just a dumb idea that wasn't funny. The concept is: “Celebrity journalist Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) secure an interview with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and are instructed by the CIA to assassinate him.” It was slated to open wide on Christmas Day, then was pulled, and is now going to open in select theatres.

Sony Pictures made the film and is a subsidiary of the Japanese multinational technology company. Their computer network was hacked, confidential information and proprietary intellectual property was released. The hackers warned the public that a “9/11-style attack” would occur to anybody who saw “The Interview.” Sony pulled the film and is now releasing it on a limited basis.

Hollywood and Washington erupted in outrage over the hacking. West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin (a former schoolmate of mine) wrote a blistering attack on the media regarding their coverage of the information stolen in the attack. “Let's just say that every news outlet that did the bidding of the Guardians of Peace [the group claiming responsibility for the hack] is morally treasonous and spectacularly dishonorable," Sorkin wrote.

Sorkin, who perhaps more than anybody else melds Hollywood and Washington together, should know better. How is this different than The Guardian or the New York Times reporting on the content of the Edward Snowden leaks? Or the leaks by Wikipedia? It is actually the role of the media to report and disclose. Sure the titillating gossip of the backbiting of entertainment executives may not have the same gravitas as the U.S. Government spying on its own people, but it’s certainly legitimate to cover. Hollywood movies are one of the top exports that the U.S. has and is a multi-billion business.

Sony’s decision to not open the film resulted in a cacophony of outrage. President Obama even weighed in. He said the company “made a mistake” by canceling the release but would not go so far as to call the hacking an “act of war.” The narrative of the criticism has been: the terrorists won and the First Amendment lost.

The First Amendment prohibits the government from making a law that abridges the freedom of speech. Sony’s decision to not open a movie is a result of threats, but in no way shakes the essence of the U.S. Constitution. No law has been made that restricts the company’s ability to make movies. Let’s also remember that Sony is not even an American company. It’s a wholly owned subsidiary of a Japanese company. It is in the business of making money. And just like every other Hollywood studio it has shareholders to report to. What would the company’s liability be if they had released the film and an incident occurred? Would the President have indemnified the company from liability? After all it’s a foreseeable event given the public nature of the threats. On Christmas Eve the company reversed itself, and will take advantage of the global free publicity for the flick and open it in "limited" release. The company is now able to have limited its legal exposure and take advantage of free marketing. 

The decision not to release the film set a bad precedent, and the ‘slippery slope’ is precarious...even with the reversal at the 11th hour. For Sony it was a lose-lose proposition, so it did what most companies do – opted for the lower risk scenario until a better situation presented itself. The best option would have been not to have a script written or even a film made when the idea was first pitched. It was just a bad idea for a film in the first place. Sorkin made up a country in his West Wing series for a war – had Sony done the same here The Interview would have landed with a thud and been gone in a week...and that would have been a wrap on this whole escapade.

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