As someone who used to be an exhibitor, I’m glad I am not now an executive at one of the major chains. The Sony hackers have ratcheted up their threats by warning moviegoers to avoid any theater playing Christmas Day opener “The Interview.” And now Sony has tossed the decision about playing it over to theater owners, giving them the option to pull their dates. With fourth-largest circuit Carmike Theaters already taking them up on their offer, it appears inevitable that the terrorists have won.
Unquestionably security and safety issues should be a priority. And the date for “The Interview” coinciding with two of the biggest weeks of the year made booking it in theaters understandably more sensitive. But if, as now seems inevitable, the film disappears from the holiday schedule, it could yield some terrible consequences.
1. If an unproven threat can cause a film to be pulled, it increases a real existential danger to American business. And life as we know it. A mere threat, backed up by no evidence that it could be carried out, worked.
What is the danger? To state the obvious, once the threat works, it will happen again and again. It could be used against movies that have topics that rabid fanatics, or even opportunistic committed activists, might not want shown. Already studios determine what films they produce with an eye to avoiding controversy that might cause some markets not to play them. Pulling”The Interview” because (apparently) North Korea doesn’t want it shown will open the floodgates for other nasty players out there to make similar demands — or maybe not even have to do so because certain films will never be made. And even if this remained an isolated event in U.S. theaters, overseas — where the same exhibitors have a major footprint — could end up a nightmare as others figure out that exhibitors will bend to threats.
And the same formula could be used by copycats against shopping malls if certain products are
sold, or book stores if something objectionable is available (remember,
Salman Rushdie is still alive), national parks if oil drilling is
allowed or anti-choice activists if women’s health clinics don’t choose to name some comparable possibilities.
2. As a level of panic increases, bring on some crisis management and common sense. The anxiety has been fanned in no small part by the same media who convinced America that Ebola was on the verge of infecting millions of people stateside. Not.
For one thing, Homeland Security says they have no evidence of any widespread plot nor signs of North Korean agents spread out across the country prepared to wreak havoc. Yes, the Sony studio is in disarray as they try to rebuild and protect their computers and data. These messages have grabbed attention, scared people and tried to prevent “The Interview” from being shown. The takeaway? Business leaders think the American people are prone to fear and it takes little to make them cower.
3. Under normal circumstances, “The Interview” would likely have opened in 3,000+ theaters. That’s five or more showings a day (more if on multiple screens) and playing of course for more than one day. The odds against any one show or theater being targeted (and again, there’s no evidence of any equivalent to an al-Qaeda type group spread out across the country to abet this) are enormous. But no one was out there explaining this.
4. The safest day to fly is right after a plane crash. Venturing into risky territory is much safer when employees are at their most vigilant and everyone is on guard. Logically, if someone wanted to make sure “The Interview” wasn’t going to be shown, the best way would have been to create turmoil at an early show on December 25 when less security will be available. But another obvious point never became part of the discussion.
I note some unnamed studios execs are already whispering that had been their decision, they’d pull the film. Call me cynical, but short-term, they will benefit from this. Their own films might have been hurt a little by some people shunning theaters at least at first during the prime Christmas week. And in this most competitive period fighting for theater seats, suddenly several thousand screens opening up will benefit them.
But those trying to encourage this are being incredibly shortsighted, for all the reasons stated above.
There are real concerns of course, the first being security. And both Sony and theaters have to worry not only as sentient humans about potential harm to staff and customers, but also the possibility of lawsuits in the unlikely event if anything happens. My suggestion? The two industry groups representing the studios and theaters — the MPAA and NATO respectively — should bind together in common cause to share the risk of extra expense for security and any possible legal damages as a show of faith, but also because of the long term cost to the industry rather than bend to terror threats now shown to work.
Now that this looks like a fait accompli, Sony might salvage this by making sure – possibly by immediately making it available for a free premium cable showing, or online, or both, so that a maximum number of people now see it. That would defeat an apparent main goal of the hackers — to keep people from seeing this. Somehow, Sony needs to show them they haven’t won a complete victory.
It’s a great opportunity to perform that VOD experiment on a major commercial release with stars that the theater owners usually won’t let them do. And it looks like Sony may take advantage of it.
(LA Times says more theaters are pulling “The Interview,” including New York’s Bow Tie Cinemas. More here.)