Thoughts on “The Interview”
December 19th, 2014

As usual, I’m of two minds about Sony pulling The Interview following the not-terribly-credible threat of violence against theaters should they choose to show the film.

On the one hand, the problems of having a terrorist’s veto are obvious. How un-credible does a threat have to be in order to cause a studio to pull a film?

Try unclouding the issue here by considering what would happen if a real-deal terrorist group decided to file a threat over a non-grievance-related movie. For instance, if ISIS said they would blow up a theater that shows The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, what would happen? On the one hand, ISIS is much more serious than the Guardians of Peace. On the other hand, why would they care about The Hobbit? I don’t know what the answer is–I don’t know how that would play. But I think that before you can come up with a real position on The Interview, you need to answer the ISIS/Hobbit scenario, first, because it clarifies the question.

As for the issue of precedent-setting, I’m not overly concerned. Hollywood will re-discover its courageous commitment to free speech and artistic integrity the next time they have a movie which insults, degrades, and offends Christians. Can’t stop the signal. Besides, the West hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory on these questions over the last couple of decades, from The Satanic Verses to the Danish Muhammad cartoons to the Red Dawn remake that changed the Chinese villains to North Korean villains so as not to offend China.

Grievance calculus is terribly complex.

I’m being flip here, but the truth is that I’m very, very sympathetic to Sony and the theater owners and if I were in their position, I would have done something very similar. Because this threat–however un-credible it is–points to an existential vulnerability of modern film-making.

From the moment of the Aurora shooting on the opening weekend of The Dark Knight Rises, people have been trying to figure out how much the attack hurt the movie’s gross. No one knows for sure, but the answer seems to be “more than nothing.”

So if you were an executive at AMC, looking down the barrel of the Christmas weekend–one of the biggest weekends of the year for moviegoing–you understood that even a threat of violence had the potential to really hurt attendance–not among people skipping The Interview (which looked like a bomb anyway) but adults and families staying away from The Hobbit and Into the Woods, etc.

But the risk to theater operators is actually much greater than just this one weekend. In the extremely unlikely event that there was a pre-meditated terrorist attack on a movie theater, it could destroy the industry. After 9/11, people flew because they had to. The alternatives to flying aren’t really comparable in terms of time and money.

People don’t need to see movies in theaters. Everyone has a 55″ flat-screen TV at home with blu-ray and streaming. (Not really “everyone,” but you get the point.) Movies come to home distribution just a few months after their theatrical runs and it’s actually cheaper to buy the blu-ray than it is to buy two tickets to the theater. A terrorist attack carries with it the potential to permanently alter Americans’ movie-going habits. Hollywood would have to be crazy to risk that.

In one of the stories about The Interview a security consultant was quoted noting that while America has done a good job “hardening” big sporting events and airports, lots of targets–like shopping malls and movie theaters–remain soft, and are in need of hardening.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that people would not tolerate the “hardening” of the multiplex. They’d just stay away from it.

Which points to the real problem: You cannot “harden” the whole of American life. That’s a logistical impossibility in a country this size. What you could do, in theory, is harden the American people. But I’m doubtful about that, too. This isn’t a judgment; just an observation.

As a wise man once said, “Peace has cost you your strength; victory has defeated you.”

End Notes: 

(1) I’m not convinced that it really is the North Koreans behind the Sony hack. I’m more-than-halfway persuaded that this is a disgruntled employee and hactivist group effort which has nothing to do with the Norks.

(2) Mitt Romney–Mitt Romney!–had the nearly perfect answer: Immediately stream The Interview, for free, and make a point about giving the finger to whoever is behind the threat. I’d go one step further and say that streaming should also be hosted off of, just to make sure people get the point about where the government is on the issue, too.

Mitt 2016: Third time’s the charm!

  1. Jeff Peterson December 19, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Ditto on comment #2 and Romney — though not on 2016! I saw the suggestion a couple of nights ago that as soon as theater owners cancelled, Sony should have announced it would make the movie (which I imagine is pretty awful) available ASAP on VOD and DVD. Without placing the burden of sustaining Western civilization against its enemies on Sony, but strictly as a matter of profit and loss, this seems like a smart and somewhat obvious move: take advantage of all the free publicity, appear courageously defiant of the Norks, etc. I’m a bit baffled to see them assuming the defensive crouch instead.

  2. REPLY
  3. SkinsFanPG December 19, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Jeff Peterson- Sony couldn’t release VOD or press DVDs in time. Comcast said they wouldn’t run it on Cable on-demand. Others would have followed. Sony has no options right now. They actually are the victims here. Theaters pulled their movie (Sony relieved them of responsibility by saying it was ok for them to pull the movie, but only after the first theater chain had pulled it.).

    Oddly enough, the only person in Hollywood that understood the stakes and pushed back was George Clooney.

  4. REPLY
  5. Nedward December 19, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    I find the FBI’s definitive announcement of NK culpability, segueing immediately into the President’s definitive press conference announcement of NK culpability, a bit odd but not necessarily inconsistent with, IMO, the most plausible scenario: Norks belatedly reaching out to the disgruntled Snowden(s) inside Sony who orchestrated this. There is no group of grungy guys in heavy metal tee shirts sitting in Pyongang in a rec room full of their equivalent of pizza boxes & Mountain Dew bottles — but the real black hats would have no difficulty putting out feelers or even arranging a meeting with a Nork official.

    As such the White House probably isn’t hammering this for cover-up reasons so much as cheap chauvinistic opportunism– witness the same President who denounced the enfant terrible of YouTube cinema now calling Sony on the carpet for “not being patriotic enough.” Obama is such a shameless ham that he can’t realize how his leaning on this characterization — state actors, cyberwar, battle of civilizations — actually makes his branch of the gov’t look worse

  6. REPLY
  7. Trumwill December 19, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    The threat of violence obsoletes the theaters and Sony from releasing it to theaters. But not their decision to scrap all plans to release it anywhere. Which I read they may be hedging on. If so, no complaints about Sony.

    I don’t object as much the Red Dawn and the like, which strikes me as substantively different than threats of violence. Perhaps that’s just me being Mr Capitalist (even if, on a personal level, I’m kind of annoyed.

  8. REPLY
  9. Jason O. December 21, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Mitt 2016: That’s hall of fame trolling right there.

  10. REPLY
  11. Mark December 22, 2014 at 3:39 am

    The theaters could publicly court concealed carry permit holders to carry at their theaters. In fact, they could offer a discount for anyone displaying a valid permit when buying a ticket. But that would require a complete attitude change on the part of most theater chains. All three chains that withdrew from showing the film have policies of not allowing concealed carry in their theaters.
    Granted, this would not do much to deflect or otherwise stop an bomber, but it would send a statement.

  12. REPLY
  13. Hardening of American Brain Arteries | Daily Pundit December 22, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    […] Jonathan Last – Thoughts on “The Interview” […]