'The Interview' uproar: Was ditching flick right business call for Sony?

Sony has drawn sharp criticism for bowing to terrorist threats promising an attack on theaters screening the moving 'The Interview.' Censorship concerns aside, the decision to cancel the film's release may have been a legitimate business decision.

Kevork Djansezian/Reuters
Heavy security surrounds the entrance of United Artists theater during the premiere of the film 'The Interview' in Los Angeles, Calif. in this December 11. Sony Pictures canceled the December 25 theatrical release of its North Korea comedy after major United States theater chains pulled out of showing the film following threats from hackers.

Lots of people are outraged that Sony Pictures Entertainment is dropping plans to release “The Interview,” the Seth Rogen comedy that depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Folks from Hollywood stars to film critics are complaining that pulling the film due to vague threats against theaters scheduled to show it is in essence allowing terrorists to triumph.

For instance, actress Mia Farrow says the “bad guys won” due to Sony’s decision. At Vox, writer Todd VanDerWerff says Sony has committed “an act of cowardice.”

The move has set a bad precedent that’s already affecting future movies, according to Mr. VanDerWerff – entertainment company New Regency has now scrapped another North Korea-based film set to star Steve Carroll. It’s “de facto censorship” emanating from Pyongyang, writes Mr. VanDerWerff.

Sony is not an arm of the US government, however. It’s a multinational corporation legally accountable to shareholders. Given that context, did it make the correct business decision to cancel the comedy?

The answer to that might be “yes.”

Most theaters weren’t going to show the movie to begin with. The big US cinema chains had made it clear that they would not risk any violence in their buildings by screening it, however vague the threats. Going to the movies is supposed to be fun, not an act of personal courage, in their view.

The movie business is already facing stiff competition from the fast rise of streaming services and high-quality television productions. Cinema owners did not want “The Interview” to give patrons another reason to stay home on the couch. Since most theaters are multiplexes, they feared the controversy could drive down attendance for other movies as well.

Then there’s the legal question. The chain which owned the theater in Aurora, Colo., attacked by a gunman in 2012 has defended against lawsuits by saying the incident was not foreseeable. The threats against “The Interview” might have rendered this defense moot.

“Once the hackers threatened physical violence, the film’s cancellation became almost inevitable,” write Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply in The New York Times.

Plus, the film was not getting great reviews, alleged North Korean threats aside. While that might not bear on the question of censorship, it could play into an executive’s decision as to whether to absorb the cost of scrapping Sony’s investment in the film.

In a thoughtful New Yorker review, Richard Brody says the geopolitical set-up and content of “The Interview” is actually quite well-thought out and grapples with some important questions. The problem, as with so many comedies that try to dive deeper, is that dampens the laughs, which is what movie-watchers want in this case.

“Why isn’t the movie actually very funny?” asks Mr. Brody, rhetorically.

And as to whether scrapping the film sets a bad precedent, that precedent might have been set whatever Sony did. Were skittish corporations really going to proceed with more North Korea-based films after what purported North Korean hackers did to Sony’s IT systems? Pyongyang had likely already become a no-fly zone for the movie business, no matter what Sony did in this instance.

This does not mean the US public interest is unaffected by Sony’s move. As Jonathan Chait points out in New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog, the movie business is in the position of exporting and promoting American culture, despite the fact that it’s a private enterprise as profit-driven as fast food.

That means perhaps the US government should take action in such instances, according Mr. Chait.

“Recognizing that the threat to a Sony picture is actually a threat to the freedom of American culture ought to lead us to a public rather than a private solution,” he writes.

It would not cost the United States much to guarantee Sony’s losses in case of a theater attack, or to offer to underwrite the free distribution of the movie online.

“The latter solution has the attractive benefit of ensuring a far wider audience for the film than it would otherwise have attracted,” according to Chait.

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