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By canning "The Interview," Sony is encouraging terrorists

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
By canning "The Interview," Sony is encouraging terrorists

My fellow Americans—

Seriously? You’re going to let North Korean hooligans manipulate you into boycotting a movie they don’t want you to see? You’re going to cower before a bogus threat of “terrorism” that exists only because provocateurs suspect Americans will stay home at the mere hint of trouble?

How about you don’t. How about you demand that Sony release its self-censored film, The Interview, which the studio planned to debut on December 25 but has now mothballed because of punkish threats from anonymous saboteurs. And if theaters choose not to show it, how about we all rush the entire movie industry until studio executives and theater owners show some fortitude.

If you’re wondering what North Korea and its creepy dictator, Kim Jong Un, have to do with your holiday plans, here’s the story. Sony Pictures (SNE) has been planning a wide release of its new movie The Interview on Christmas Day. The Interview is a comedy in which James Franco and Seth Rogen star as tabloid journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong Un, which is, of course, a preposterous premise. In real life, however, Kim is notorious for his poor sense of humor, which is why he has called The Interview an “act of war,” asked the United Nations to help ban it, and promised a “resolute and merciless response” if the film is released as scheduled.

That merciless response may entail a vast cyber attack on Sony that began earlier this month and has left the studio in a state of chaos.

In early December, hackers calling themselves “Guardians of Peace” broke into Sony’s computer systems and stole emails and personal data belonging to thousands of employees, along with full digital versions of several Sony films. North Korea seems a likely culprit, though nobody with knowledge of the attack has fingered the communist nation, and it’s not clear they even have the capability to pull off one of the most spectacular cybercrimes to date.

North Korea hasn’t claimed responsibility, but the CIA has now reportedly linked the hacking attack to North Korea--an impressive achievement for a nation that can’t even keep the lights on.

Now there are new, anonymous threats of terrorism in the United States should theaters show the film as they have pledged to do. The peace-guarding terrorists--presumably, North Korea agents--going after Sony sent emails to several news organizations recently warning there will be a replay of the 9-11 terrorist attacks if Sony releases The Interview as planned. "The world will be full of fear,” they say. All this, because of a movie.

Landmark Theaters, in response, canceled its New York premiere of The Interview, even though a similar preview in Los Angeles on December 11 went off without incident. Then five other leading theater chains--Regal, AMC, Cinemark, Carmike and Cineplex--decided they wouldn't show the film until federal authorities figured out who's making the threats--which is basically an indefinite delay, given that cybercriminals are rarely apprehended. Then Sony finally canned the whole project, hoping to put the whole episode behind it.

The opposite seems more likely to happen. Sony and its co-appeasers in the movie-theater business have just ratified a new type of phone-in terrorism: Call in a threat to public safety, link it to an ideological demand and watch the corporate establishment bolt with its tail between its legs. It's a bit grandiose to call this a violation of the free speech and free assembly that's guaranted by the First Amendment, since corproations and movie theaters are businesses that can publish and show whatever they choose to. But it's a horrible precedent and a remarkably shortsighted move nonetheless. 

If North Korea is behind the threats, they got exactly what they were after and completely outmaneuvered Hollywood. Message to two-bit cranks everywhere: cyberterrorism works and Americans will blink at anything. It helped, in this case, that the theater chains broke ranks and rapidly ran to the rear, leaving fewer and fewer of their brethren to face down the threat. Had Sony and the theater chains joined ranks and refused to be bullied, by contrast, the threat probably would have vaporized. Of course one factor that's always a factor here in Litigation Nation is legal liability, since lawyers are sure to materialize if something goes wrong and accuse corporations of failing to panic quickly enough. 

What's most absurd about this whole fiasco is that the threat to theaters is probably nil. The FBI, so far, says the terrorist threats aren't credible. In fact, the whole idea that there could be sleeper cells of North Korean terrorists waiting for the signal to bomb theaters wouldn’t cut it as a bad movie script. The FBI sees environmental and animal-rights activists as a bigger danger inside U.S. borders—and nobody closes theaters or malls for PETA. It’s always possible terrorists could materialize in the United States without the government’s notice, but think about it for a minute: Hardly anybody in the world sympathizes with North Korea—not even the butchers of ISIS or al Qaeda.

For Sony, the hacking attack is an obvious financial setback that has pushed the stock down about 12% during the last two weeks. The Interview itself seemed like it would be a beneficiary of the controversy, with expectations for the first month’s box-office receipts rising from about $40 million in September to nearly $60 million in early December. So Sony will eat that as a loss if the movie never sees the light of day. If axing the film weren't so craven, I suppose we would be praising Sony for putting money over safety. Except it's hard to believe safety is even an issue.

Moveigoers don't like to think too hard about uncomfortable issues behind their entertainment, and The Interview isn't a social-justice issue on the scale of Michael Brown or Eric Garner. It hasn't even gotten very good reviews, making it a weird rallying point for free-speech activists. Yet The Interview has now become a pivotal film that will no doubt guide other sensitivistas who will attempt similar tactics when something--a movie, book, web site, art exhibit or who knows what--challenges their own weird proclivities.

As with many corporate controversies, there's spirited talk of boycotting Sony and the movie chains for bumbling so badly. It might be more effective if Americans just shouted with one loud voice, "show the move, for pete's sake!" We could do that by hitting the theaters en masse during the holidays and demanding tickets to the show. Just showing up might do the trick--supporting American democracy with a mere act of presence. Since they're not allowed to do that in North Korea, maybe we should show them how.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.