Why The Interview’s withdrawal sets a worrying precedent

With Sony announcing that it has "no plans" to release The Interview, we look at what it might mean for the future of filmmaking...

A few months ago, the unfolding furore surrounding Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s comedy The Interview probably seemed funny.

The film, about a TV host (played by James Franco) and his producer (Rogen) who are instructed by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, enraged the country’s government. It was, North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman said, “an act of war.”

“Making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated,” read a statement from a North Korean news agency. “If the US administration allows and defends the showing of the film, a merciless counter-measure will be taken”.

When the story emerged in June, Seth Rogen didn’t seem particularly worried. “People don’t usually wanna kill me for one of my movies until after they’ve paid 12 bucks for it,” read one of his tweets.

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As summer turned to autumn, however, the story surrounding The Interview gradually began to darken. In August, it emerged that Sony was working to tone down the graphic nature of a late scene in the film, and that the buttons on soldiers’ uniforms would be altered to look less like the real thing.

The hacks begin

Then, in late November, the hacking began. A group calling itself Guardians of Peace managed to break in to Sony Pictures’ servers and steal a wealth of sensitive data, ranging from private emails to scripts to new and unreleased movies. Within less than a month, a percentage of this data began to appear online, either on Torrent websites (in the case of the movies) or fed to news outlets, who subsequently published juicy stories about angry back-and-forth emails between producers or the salaries of Hollywood stars.

As those stories continued to seep out in the media through early December, hackers began to send threatening messages to Sony employees. “Please sign your name to object the false of the company at the email address below if you don’t want to suffer damage” one message read. “If you don’t, not only you but your family will be in danger.”

Another, even more disturbing message appeared online, designed to deter moviegoers from seeing The Interview in theatres. It contained the disturbing line, “Remember the 11th of September 2001.”

In response, cinemas operators across America began cancelling their screenings of The Interview. All of this culminated with Sony’s decision to not only cancel the release of The Interview, but also shelve the film altogether.

On the 18th December, a spokesperson for the studio said it has “no further plans for the film” – apparently nixing the possibility of a release on disc or via video on demand.

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The withdrawal

The reaction to the withdrawal of The Interview was an understandable mixture of bemusement and outrage: outrage at an anonymous group of hackers’ ability to intimidate a film studio into compliance, and outrage at what looked from the outside to be an abrupt capitulation on Sony’s part. Of course, we don’t necessarily know what’s going on inside the besieged studio – it could be that it’s privy to further credible threats that the media isn’t, as yet.

What we can safely assume is that the whole affair has already been a costly one for Sony; Bloomsberg estimates that repairing the damage from the hack, when coupled with the cost of making and marketing The Interview – estimated to be around $80m – could run into the hundreds of millions.

Among the outrage, however, there’s also been a certain amount of apathy or even Schadenfreude surrounding the situation. It’s not hard to see why, either: for all the controversy, The Interview is just another anarchic and violent Seth Rogen comedy along the lines of Pineapple Express. The victim of the hack was a huge corporation, and some of the leaked emails didn’t necessarily inspire much sympathy for those whose reputations were damaged in the process.

But The Interviews shelving also sets a disturbing precedent. Films have caused controversy before. Films have been withdrawn from theatrical presentation before. But never in a climate of fear and intimidation such as this.

Media and fear

In the wake of Sony’s announcement, a number of famous names have weighed in on the subject. Steve Carell tweeted the film’s withdrawal was “A sad day for creative expression.”  Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin described the situation as “an unprecedented attack on our most cherished, bedrock principle of free speech.”

Whatever your thoughts on The Interview as a piece of filmmaking – and we can’t comment, as we weren’t among the outlets who got to see the film before its cancellation – the story surrounding its withdrawal is entirely new. Moving away from the content of the film itself, and the salacious content of the data leaked from Sony, and you can see the growth of a new and quite insidious form of censorship.

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At the time of writing, the culprits behind the hack haven’t clearly been identified. It’s been widely suggested that the hackers may be directly connected to North Korea, but there isn’t currently a consensus. Wired has argued that the evidence supporting the country’s direct involvement is flimsy. UPDATE: The FBI have now conclusively linked North Korea to the hack.

Certainly, the emails sent from the hackers have been strangely inconsistent; their early correspondences didn’t even mention The Interview, but rather seemed to attempt to extort Sony for an undisclosed sum of money.

“Monetary compensation we want,” read the Yoda-like email. “Pay the damage, or Sony Pictures will be bombarded as a whole.”

It was only later that The Interview began to be mentioned in the hackers’ messages. In Wired‘s article, the possibility is floated that the media may have inspired the hackers to start referring to the movie after stories began to link the hacks to Sony’s controversial film.

“Even if members of [Guardians of Peace] lack the means or intent to pull off a terrorist attack on their own,” Wired‘s article reads, “they’ve now created an open invitation for opportunistic attackers to do so in their name – in essence, escalating their crimes and influence to a level no other hackers have achieved to date.”

In other words, what we could be looking at is not one group of hackers but several, spurred on by the media hoopla to join in the much publicised assault on Sony’s computer systems.

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Censorship by attrition

Whoever’s behind the hacks, those responsible have found a cunning and disturbing means of playing both the public and the media to their own advantage. They’ve used the web, intended as a way of freely sharing information, as a tool to suppress it.

Although the target of this particular campaign is a film studio, the tactics behind it aren’t particularly different from those recently used against an individual: media critic Anita Sarkeesian. Earlier this year, Sarkeesian’s Tropes Vs Women In Video Games web series provoked a wave of online harassment. Her website was hacked, threatening messages were sent to her email address, and a planned talk at Utah State University was cancelled after it received terrorist threats.

These two cases might sound as different as chalk and cheese, but the thinking behind them is the same: to use coercion and fear to silence an unpopular piece of work or way of thinking. It’s a form of censorship by attrition, where those on the receiving end of the attack are forced to choose between an ongoing torrent of intimidation or beat a hasty retreat.

For Sony, the risk of further reprisals was clearly more than it could stomach. Certainly, critics of The Interview could argue that it wasn’t a film particularly worth fighting for in any case: this is a bawdy comedy, not a controversial piece of cinema from the likes of Scorsese or Kubrick. But thinking back to some of the most incendiary pictures in movie history, we can only wonder what might have happened had they been made in the 21st century.

Charlie Chaplin’s satire The Great Dictator was a bare-faced attack on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, released at a time before America had joined the Second World War. It’s not hard to imagine that Chaplin’s film would have resulted in a similarly stinging attack on its studio, United Artists, had it been released in 2014.

[related article: 16 Other Movies Foreign Governments Didn’t Want People to See]

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Indeed, looking to the future, the worst possible outcome would be for similar campaigns to be waged against other unpopular films. It might sound like the stuff of a conspiracy thriller, but what would prevent a powerful individual – be they a politician, billionaire media magnate or celebrity – from ordering their own secret hacking war on a film, book or other piece of art that painted them in a less than favourable light?

We remain hopeful that, when the dust has settled on the whole situation, Sony will change its mind and release The Interview on DVD or video on demand. Indeed, the film has now received so much publicity that it’s gained the attention of a demographic who’d have little interest in a Seth Rogen comedy – so much so that some have joked that, whether Sony want it to or not, The Interview will almost certainly see the light of day sooner or later.

If there’s a hint of positivity to The Interview saga, it’s this: the harder certain groups attempt to suppress something, the more urgently it bursts into the public arena – it’s what’s now known as the Streisand Effect. Take the story of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, for example. Newspaper millionaire William Randolph Hearst was so enraged by the film’s obvious parallels to his own life that he blocked the mere mention of its name from his publications and tried to have it removed from cinemas. It’s now one of the most famous films in American cinema.

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