If the FBI, President Obama, and George Clooney are to be believed, the North Korean government tapped a hacking collective dubbed Guardians of Peace to breach Sony’s servers and leak tons of sensitive company information online—all as retribution for their distribution of The Interview, a satire depicting two bromantic dolts, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco, gaining access to the Hermit Kingdom under the guise of a TV interview and assassinating its Dear Leader, Kim Jong Un.
Threats against cinemas exhibiting The Interview by the GOP followed, and after the five major theater chains buckled under the hackers’ pressure and chose to pull the movie from their screens, Sony was left with no choice but to cancel the film’s theatrical release.
“I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco [Franco],” President Obama said during a particularly surreal year-end press conference Friday. “I love Seth and I love James, but the notion that that was a threat to them I think gives you some sense of the kind of regime we’re talking about here.”
Responding to Obama’s comments, Sony CEO Michael Lynton said that the company is exploring other release options, but claimed that no VOD or major e-commerce sites have stepped forward to say they’d be willing to distribute The Interview. “We have always had every desire to let the American public see this movie,” Lynton said.
While many cybersecurity experts and prominent hackers, including LulzSec’s Sabu and Anonymous, have expressed doubt that North Korea are the ones responsible for the Sony hacking, if this was all because of a Seth Rogen and James Franco flick, well, leaked Sony emails have revealed that another hotly anticipated blockbuster comedy featuring the duo was stalled by Sony over a budget fight: Pineapple Express 2.
The first Pineapple Express was released back in 2008 and produced by Judd Apatow, written by Rogen and pal Evan Goldberg (who wrote and directed The Interview), and starred Rogen as a process server who’s gone on the run with his space cadet drug dealer (Franco) after witnessing a murder. It was distributed by Sony’s Columbia Pictures and was a surprise hit, grossing $87 million domestic (and $101 million worldwide) against a $25 million budget.
The hilarious stoner comedy became an even bigger hit on home video, selling 2.5 million DVDs for $43 million in revenue in 2009 alone, and even inspired the funniest skit during the 2009 Academy Awards ceremony.
On April 1, 2013, Sony released a (fake) trailer for Pineapple Express 2 as an April Fools Day prank, which featured original cast members Rogen, Franco, Danny McBride, and a cameo by Jonah Hill as Woody Harrelson:
In leaked emails from the Sony hack, on January 23, 2014, Apatow emailed Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, about Pineapple Express 2.
“I am so glad we are so close to getting pineapple express 2 figured out. I am very excited to make this thing real. We are very inspired creatively on this one. We have hilarious ideas. It is gonna be awesome. We learned so much on how to make these comedy sequels when we did anchorman 2. And we rocked that marketing campaign. Foreign is doing awesome too. I am sure PE2 will do even better! Marijuana is so popular now! It's on every corner!”
Then, that same day, Pascal emailed Rogen saying that Judd just emailed her about the sequel, and Rogen replied, “We spent a lot of time kicking around ideas during the interview with Franco. Got some stuff we are pretty psyched about. It would be a blast.”
But apparently, Apatow wanted a $50 million budget for Pineapple Express 2, while Sony kept pushing back and demanding that it be $45 million, citing the fact that The Interview was only made for $40 million. An email sent on March 12 from Michael De Luca, co-president of production at Columbia Pictures to Jay Galston, president of motion picture business development at Sony, said, “we don't need to run it at 50 just because Judd is saying 50, keep it at 45.” Then, Galston drafted replied by attaching a theoretical budget for the film set at a $45 million production cost with an addition $37 million allocated for marketing.
This led Apatow to pen a long, desperate plea to Lynton about the slow process of putting together Pineapple Express 2, and his frustration with the business development department at Sony.
“This email is just for you -- please don't forward it on to anyone. I am trying to get Pineapple Express Two going. It has been very slow with Sony business affairs. I fear it is about to slip away. My intention is to make it with the same approach as Anchorman 2. Pineapple Express made more money than Anchorman one did. We shot our Anchorman sequel for 50 million and all made a lot of money. It is the right number for an action comedy which we want to have enough good action to work internationally. And I need to pay the actors sequel level fees. That is what we want to do with Pineapple Express. A 50 million dollar budget. 45 doesn't get it done. We have been offered a writing deal by Sony and that is all. We need a real commitment to make the film in order to get this going. Not just a writing deal. That is how we did the Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers deals. And the Anchorman 2 deal.
I feel like this is a no brainer. Seth and Evan would direct. They are on fire. I would write it with them. I pitched Deluca the premise. It is all about the legalization of marijuana. It could not be more timely. He loves it. Seth's movie Neighbors was giant at SXSW. I saw it. It will be a huge hit. If we don't get this in place they are going to move on to other projects. They have a growing slate. How do we move this along quickly before they get sidetracked with other projects? I rarely reach out to you but I don't know how to get this done before it goes away and everyone there is slow as molasses.”
Lynton immediately replied, “I will get right into it.”
It appears the project reached further problems over the budgetary dispute, with Sony business development demanding the number be $45 million, but De Luca siding with Apatow in favor of taking a swing on a $50 million budget for the sequel.
In an email dated April 23 to Pascal, De Luca voiced his thoughts on Pineapple Express 2 in a long email to Pascal:
“Please forgive me for belaboring this I know we drew our line in the sand at 45 but I just had a long talk with Judd and I just want to throw the following points out for discussion before we cut bait because as the new guy I'm not afraid of asking the stupid questions:
Judd feels that he's been trying to get this going for seven months, and he knows it's more his agenda than the guys but in terms of being accused of trying to jam us now, he does feel it's not a jam because in his mind it's been a months long pitch, it just came to a head now because of the heat on the guys and frankly he wants it to happen, he admitted that, but he also thinks it's good business given where the guys are to lock in a Seth/Franco comedy-in terms of the math of it, when you add up what the guys make on acting, writing, and directing plus mcbride, and Judd, there's not enough money at 45 to make the film below the line the bigger sequel they pitched to us. At 50 they think there is. He thinks if you add up the above the line you'll see that 50 gets you the slightly bigger movie with more action and 45 won't. he said that by the time PE 2 comes out, the guys will have three movies in one form or another behind them, and fees may be even bigger, so why don't we want to be into Seth and Evans hot streak?
I know Judd is jamming, but his math on their fees and the added scope to the sequel make less of a crazy case for 50 than it appears. The downside isn't crippling and if this is Austin powers 2 to Austin 1 we look like heroes. Or hangover to hangover 2, or even anchorman 2.”
But Doug Belgrad, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group, wasn’t convinced by De Luca’s pitch, writing to De Luca and Pascal:
“As a creative and relationship judgment we're all on board for the movie. The truth is that Judd is really just picking an arbitrary number since there is no script. And I'm not sure why it has to cost 10mil more than Interview. I think it's a fallacy to think that this movie will be more commercial and play better internationally because they've added 5 million of action. And we've proposed a deal where if they're right and we're wrong on the international value they would get a disproportionate share. In any case, I welcome the conversation as part of the review of the upcoming slate that we're doing tomorrow. Perhaps you could have the finance guys lay out the strip on the original movie against the current model, This is the End and current projections on the interview. We've made a lot of money on Seth movies made for 27, 32 and at 40 we stand to do pretty well on interview. I'm just not sure that the formula continues to work for us at 50 given other uses we might have for that money. In my heart I don't believe pineapple is Austin powers or even anchorman, I think it's more like this is the end.”
De Luca made one last sell for Pineapple Express 2, replying the same day to all the Sony execs:
“Well it's not completely arbitrary it's based on adding up above the line fees for guys who are peaking and using below the line guesstimates based on that pitch and what we all know set pieces cost. If we really don't think it has a prayer of performing better than the first one domestically and internationally let's just drop it. Based on certain sequels doing better in both and these guys ascending track record I thought it could and I felt better about fiscal 17 with this in it, but look, this is your guys' thing, I just inherited it and diagnosing the issues here, thought it was smart to have, but if going from 45 to 50 kills it I understand. Just wanted to place it in the context of slates needing picture choices that throw off revenue to make the numbers work. I'd bet on this one and if it falls short it's not a crippling blow.”
Then, Pascal dealt what may have been Pineapple Express 2’s death blow, replying:
“I think they should agree to the 45 contractually and we have and always will do the right thing.”