On the one hand, the holiday box office may get a boost (THR assesses the box office impact here), as Peter Jackson’s third and ultimate “Hobbit” film opened Wednesday to $24.5 million. That’s balm to exhibitors and an industry shell-shocked as it found itself the object of real threats — not just immediate but also longer-term — as its vulnerability to terror threats, long known within the business, became clear.
This has serious implications going ahead, not only for movies but for all forms of potentially controversial expression. Reaction from the media and public has been largely negative — free speech lawyer Alan Dershowitz calls it “Pearl Harbor on the First Amendment” — but in fairness, theater owners were under enormous pressure once the direct threat was made.
As horrifying as possible repercussions will be–and immediate, as director Gore Verbinski’s North Korean-set thriller “Pyongyang” starring Steve Carrell was dropped by producer New Regency after distribution partner Twentieth Century Fox withdrew from releasing it–exhibition executives faced enormous pressures to drop “The Interview” once Sony (acting as though they wanted someone else to make the decision for them) gave the green light.
Here’s why the theaters dropped “The Interview”:
1. They believed that Sony wanted to pull the movie, but was passing the buck to them
Sony, rather than appear to appease the terrorists, seemed to push the decision onto exhibitors instead, as though they were looking out for their interests. When the big chains pulled the movie, it seemed that Sony had no choice but to pull the film. Theater owners figure that Sony wanted to withdraw the film all along, but waited until the last possible minute to do so.
2. The domino effect
Once Carmike, the fourth-largest circuit, quickly announced they were pulling on Tuesday afternoon, it was inevitable the rest would follow. A precedent was set, the pressure had built. For those theaters that wanted to stay on board, the chances of being targets increased. The only way that “The Interview” could have been released was for the theaters to mount a broad-based, unanimous industrywide resistance to the threat.
3. Insurance issues
Exhibitors are acutely aware of the multiple lawsuits filed against Cinemark after 12 people died and 70 were injured at their Aurora Colorado theater during a midnight show of “The Dark Knight Rises” in July 2012. The circuit has been unable to get courts to dismiss the suits, which claim the theater was negligent in not preventing the shooter from gaining access to the auditorium. However this turns out, it is costing them millions in legal costs. The argument goes that once was informed of a threat, if a film is still shown and death and injury occur, the theater will be more readily liable. And pressure from insurers — perhaps telling their policy holders they will not cover claims, or renew coverage — could also have come into play.
4. Pressure from landlords and local government
Most theaters sit in multi-use properties, leasing rather than owning their space. All are under the partial control of licensing and other legal vulnerabilties from local agencies, including the police. Although it is doubtful many could have been blocked from playing “The Interview,” shopping center management and public officials have myriad ways to pressure theaters not to show something they perceive as a potential threat. These could include significant charges for outside security, future lease arrangements, unexpected safety inspections and numerous other ways they could (and in some cases may already have) sent the message not to show the film.
5. The threat came from an already effective source
With the confirmation that this is the work of North Korea, a rogue terrorist state that has shown the ability to inflict serious cyber-damage on the Sony corporation, this became more real than someone threatening harm because of displeasure over “The Last Temptation of Christ,” say, or the politics of “American Sniper,” or some Japanese nationalist group angry with the portrayal of the treatment of POWs in “Unbroken.” And it came with an unspoken threat, one that is already on the minds of all companies these days — what if the next action against anyone playing the film would be making their data a target? That fear shut down the possibility of Sony issuing the film on VOD.
6. The timing made it worse
Every exhibitor from a wintry location fears a big storm or sub-zero blast during Christmas week that could kill box office during this crucial high-volume period, which once gone, can never be replaced. If the general public reacted to the threats and avoided theaters that played “The Interview” by staying away, an already-weak year at the box office would have gotten much worse.
7. Real concern for public and staffing safety
The theater chains were genuinely concerned about their workers. Many top circuit executives worked their way up through the ranks and have many personal connections to their employees. The education level and pay for managers has increased significantly in recent years. But another reality lurks: theaters depend on workers whose jobs require them to be on duty on holidays, night times, weekends. In short, they don’t want to lose staffers to other jobs due to fear for their safety.
Post- 9/11, any public gatherings without surveillance upon entry have become a potential target of opportunity for terrorists. Many of these — sporting events, concerts, political rallies — have checkpoints to make sure nothing bad happens. Movie theaters are vulnerable. And 2015 marks the 100-year anniversary of moviegoing as a mass-audience event unequaled in any form of entertainment. There are plenty of ways to see movies without going to theaters which offer audiences the ability to see new movies long before they are available through other venues.
What this reaction shows is how much exhibitors understand their vulnerability and hoped to stop the immediate threat. The ongoing concern (along with the much bigger threat to free speech and creative expression) is that the door has been opened for that fear to be played upon over and over again.