Sony hack: No more North Korean bad guys? Or Russian? Or ...?

Critics argue that Sony’s decision to pull 'The Interview' sets a dangerous precedent and could lead to a chilling effect in Hollywood. One Steve Carell film already has been canceled. Experts worry more movies about sensitive topics, under pressure from hackers or a wave of self-censorship, could follow.

Kevork Djansezian/Reuters/file
A security guard stands at the entrance of United Artists theater during the premiere of the film "The Interview" in Los Angeles in this Dec. 11 file photo. On Wednesday, Sony cancelled the release of the film under pressure from a North Korea-linked hacking group.

[Update: This story has been updated to include the news that Paramount has canceled screenings of "Team America: World Police."]

Sony Picture Entertainment’s decision to cancel the release of “The Interview” has come under harsh criticism from Hollywood celebrities and media law experts alike, many of whom have castigated the studio for capitulating to the demands of North Korea-linked hackers.

Sony’s announcement came Wednesday after all the largest theater chains in the United States said they would not show the film – a far-fetched comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – for fear of terrorist threats from the hacking group called Guardians of Peace.

Critics argue that Sony’s decision sets a dangerous precedent for the movie industry, where recent financial pressures have made studios exceedingly risk averse. Its subsequent chilling effect has already led to the cancellation of another film about North Korea that was set to star Steve Carell. And experts worry that more movies about sensitive topics, under pressure from indignant hackers or a wave of self-censorship, could follow.

On Thursday, Paramount Pictures ordered at least three movie theaters to cancel their planned screenings of “Team America: World Police.” Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Texas, for example, had planned to show the satirical film – which depicts former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as a cartoonish villain – after Sony canceled the release of “The Interview.” Spoiler: Kim Jong-il doesn’t die in “Team America.”

“It does raise concerns over the ability of individuals with unknown capabilities to chill freedom of speech in the United States by making threats that may or may not have any basis in reality,” says Jeff Hermes, a deputy director at the Media Law Resource Center in New York. “The disturbing thing around this or any terrorist threat is that they’re intended to generate fear irrespective of whether or not the fear is rational.”

That fear came to a boiling point earlier this week when Guardians of Peace warned that “the world will be full of fear” if “The Interview” was released as planned on Christmas. It threatened attacks on theaters showing the film, leading the companies to pull it from their screens.

“Remember the 11th of September 2001,” the group said in a message delivered to computers at Sony’s office. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”

Mr. Hermes calls the attack “well executed in a scary way.” He says the initial breach of Sony computers – one of the most destructive cyber attacks seen on American soil – might have earned the hackers enough credibility for their threat of violence to be taken seriously.

On Thursday, US intelligence officials said that North Korea was “centrally involved” in the computer hacking and the threats that followed. But despite that, officials told The New York Times that it was not clear how the White House would respond.

Hermes says the decision to not show the film was “shortsighted,” if rational when looked at from a short-term business perspective.

“Is it worth frightening people who are going to movies theaters to perhaps see other films?” he asks, especially during the busy holiday season. “If you look at it from that narrow perspective, you can see why a movie theater may say it’s not worth it. But these decisions made in the moment do wind up having wider consequences.”

Concerns about those wider consequences were echoed across Hollywood, where celebrities took to social media to express their outrage over Sony’s decision. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel described it as “an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.”

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted a more conciliatory note.

“Dear Sony Hackers,” he said, “now that u run Hollywood, I'd also like less romantic comedies, fewer Michael Bay movies and no more Transformers.”

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