Late last week, TechCrunch had a chat with former Sony Pictures Chief Digital Strategy Officer Mitch Singer to discuss the motivations that likely went into Sony deciding to pull “The Interview” from theaters and the implications of that decision.
Movie theater chains have claimed that their reasoning for pulling the film (which essentially forced Sony’s hand because the lack of distribution would have doomed it to failure at the box office) was to protect their attendees in the face of threats of violence from the hackers. Singer notes that the odds of physical attacks were very low — but retribution in the form of further hacking probably seemed likely to all involved.
“We know that only a small percentage of the documents have been released. So if you’re Sony, and you’re saying, OK, I know 5 people’s emails have been leaked, but our head of corporate strategy’s documents haven’t been released, our head of corporate legal’s documents haven’t been released, our medical records haven’t been released. Who knows what treasure trove of documents hasn’t been released,” Mitch said, describing the thinking likely happening within Sony Pictures’ top ranks.
He continued: “[Beyond] the threats to employees and the employees’ families, which I think you have to take seriously, Sony had to make an economic decision. It wasn’t based on preserving American values or freedom of expression, or allowing someone to force self-censorship, this was a business decision that Sony had to make — are we going to lose more money if we release the film, when more documents being released could ruin us, or should we just bury it, take the loss and move on.”
Even those of us outside of Sony Pictures could see that they had very little leverage against the hackers — from all accounts, they seem to have been wholly compromised with no way of getting their documents back or preventing further dumps without caving in to the hackers’ demands.
Because of that, however, there has been some criticism of Sony for not releasing the film as an act of defiance, as a way of saying that we as Americans don’t give a damn about what offends some dictator halfway around the world.
LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson went so far as to describe the decision to pull the film as the end of free speech in Hollywood, writing, “Worse, we’ve hobbled our nation’s commitment to free speech in ways we may never see: What scripts will nervous execs veto in fear of their own cyber assault? What films will never exist? How long will studios bite their tongues – and for whom? Another North Korean flick starring Steve Carell and directed by Oscar winner Gore Verbinski has already been preemptively halted.”
Singer notes that this is not the first time Hollywood has committed self-censorship on economic grounds, citing the numerous examples of American film studios altering their films for release in China’s lucrative markets, like cutting Chow Yun-Fat’s screen time by half in the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” film due to a perceived negative portrayal of Chinese people. “Do you think any major motion picture that wants to reach that audience is going to be critical of the Chinese government? Is anyone going to make a film about burning the Quran any time soon? I don’t think so.”
That raises an interesting question that’s worth thinking about: Why do we criticize decisions that inhibit free expression based on one set of economic incentives over another? We know how films that have eventually been released in China were changed and don’t have much of a problem with it. The obvious difference between those situations and what has happened with “The Interview” is that American audiences are being denied access to a film (which may be temporary anyway).
But the only reason we know about it being pulled is because the pressure against the studio happened out in the open — we don’t know how many films have been scrapped before we ever heard about them because they wouldn’t have done well overseas, given weakening domestic movie theater attendance in recent years.