Over the past week, Sony Pictures Entertainment has received more body blows than Muhammad Ali during the Rumble in the Jungle. They’ve been branded “cowards” by the bastion of journalistic integrity that is the New York Post; “made a mistake,” according to the Commander-in-Chief; and “have sent ISIS a commanding invitation,” in the words of Hollywood freedom fighter Sean Penn. Hell, one of the Dixie Chicks even offered to Uber her balls over to the company.
This tsunami of invective is, of course, in response to Sony’s decision to cancel the theatrical release of The Interview following a crippling cyberattack by a hacking group dubbed Guardians of Peace with a vendetta against the film, 9/11-invoking threats aimed at theaters exhibiting the Kim Jong Un assassination comedy, and every major theatrical chain backing out of hosting the movie.
“We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public,” Sony said in a statement aborting the release. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”
FBI officials and President Obama remain thoroughly convinced that the hacking of Sony, which led to the proliferation of sensitive company documents—from employee Social Security numbers to private email correspondences—online, was the work of the North Korean government; a claim that North Korea, Anonymous, and numerous cybersecurity experts have disputed.
But if you believe the government line that North Korea are the ones behind one of the most devastating corporate cyberattacks in history, isn’t it a little strange to place the brunt of the blame on its victim? It’s easy to kick a corporation like Sony when it’s down, yet the studio was given no choice but to cancel the theatrical release of The Interview after every major theater chain wimped out of showing it. And while a coalition of 250 art house theaters have petitioned Sony to allow them to exhibit The Interview, you’re basically asking a company that was just fleeced out of about $200 million to screen a $78 million film (between its $41 million budget and $37 million in print and advertising) on a few hundred screens that are a fraction of the size of a Regal movie theater instead of its usual 3,000-plus theaters.
Other critics like Mitt Romney, whose former company Bain Capital is heavily invested in Sony, along with a host of other Republicans, have proclaimed that the studio should release The Interview online for free and accept donations. Setting aside the fact that these comments are pure, politically-motivated jingoism—since no one despises Hollywood more than the GOP—again, you’re asking a studio that just suffered an unprecedented cyberattack to risk further financial losses by experimenting with an unprecedented release strategy for a major Hollywood film.
Sony’s failure in the wake of the hacking has been primarily a public relations one. Once the theater chains backed out, the studio idiotically scrubbed all promotional materials for The Interview (social media accounts, trailers, etc.) from the Internet and released a pansy press release saying, “We respect and understand our partners' decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers,” and announcing that there were “no further plans” to release the movie. Instead, the studio’s statement should have read something like this: “We have no goddamn screens to show the movie now since all the theaters backed out, so we’ve been left with no choice to cancel the release. This is all very unprecedented, and we are hard at work exploring other options to get this movie to its audience”—a position that was finally put forward by Sony CEO Michael Lynton after President Obama further embarrassed the company in front of the entire country.
In addition to the lame press releases, Sony presumably tapped two of their pals, Aaron Sorkin and George Clooney, to defend the company. But Sorkin’s New York Times op-ed was nothing more than crass, uninformed finger-wagging at the media for covering some of the more salacious bits of the Sony emails, while Clooney’s interview with Deadline was pure High Noon, digging its claws into Hollywood for turning its back on the studio. The message, that Sony is not primarily to blame for canceling the release of The Interview, became muddled—which explains why the studio hired crisis management expert Judy Smith, the real-life inspiration for the Olivia Pope character on ABC’s Scandal, to survey the damage.
The pummeling of Sony is also odd considering that the studio was the only one that had the cajones to green-light The Interview in the first place—a fact backed by the film’s writer/director/star Seth Rogen at the Los Angeles premiere of the movie on December 11.
“I’d like to thank Amy Pascal for having the balls to make this movie,” Rogen said of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s co-chairman.
And it’s even stranger that Sony’s being painted as content cowards when you take into account that Columbia Pictures, the division of Sony that’s distributing The Interview, has a history of championing many of the most subversive, progressive, and anti-authoritarian movies of the last century.
One of the studio’s biggest targets has been the government.
Take Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a 1939 film distributed by Columbia about a small-town whistleblower that exposes corruption in Washington. At the time of its release, the movie was branded anti-American and pro-Communist for taking on the U.S. government, with then Democratic Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley saying it was “a grotesque distortion” of the Senate, and several journalists calling for the film to banned because it wasn’t in the best interests of the country. Today, it’s regarded as a classic.
Or how about 1949’s All the King’s Men, a Columbia picture centered on the rise of Southern politician Willie Stark, who gradually mutates from an idealistic lawyer to a corrupt power broker. The role was originally offered to John Wayne, who rejected it for being “unpatriotic.” There’s also 1984, the first feature film adaptation of George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian novel released in 1956, and a pair of movies critical of the nuclear arms race/Cold War in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis—the masterful satire Dr. Strangelove, and Fail-Safe. And let’s not forget The People vs. Larry Flynt, a 1996 biopic depicting the Hustler magazine owner’s First Amendment battle with fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell (Flynt is currently putting together a porn parody of The Interview to literally stick it to Kim Jong Un), or Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which shed light on CIA torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Columbia also shepherded several of the most renowned counter-culture films of the ‘70s, including Dennis Hopper’s cultural touchstone Easy Rider, a 1969 avant-garde flick about a pair of hippie motorcyclists clashing with authority figures and hillbillies while navigating the Deep South. Peter Bogdanovich’s steamy small town drama The Last Picture Show challenged audience’s sexual appetites, and was briefly banned for obscenity in Arizona. And, last but not least, there was Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver, a fascinating exploration of vigilantism, post-Vietnam PTSD, mistrust in the government, and media manipulation.
They’ve also been one of the most broadminded studios when it comes to race relations in America, responsible for distributing the landmark 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which took on the country’s backwards miscegenation laws; Spike Lee’s incendiary School Daze, about institutional racism at an all-black college; and John Singleton’s directorial debut Boyz n the Hood, which provided an unfiltered look into the cycle of gang violence, racial profiling, and police brutality in East L.A., and making Singleton the first African-American to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. Sony’s also established a specialty studio, Screen Gems, which produces films that cater to black audiences—something few other majors do, period.
And that’s all without mentioning some of the other cinema classics Columbia Pictures has churned out, such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, His Girl Friday, The Shawshank Redemption, The Social Network, or Sony’s indie wing Sony Pictures Classics, which consistently produces some of the most compelling art house cinema around, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to A Separation, as well as status quo-challenging documentaries like Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, which took on Abu Ghraib, or Charles Ferguson’s financial crisis expose Inside Job.
Besides The Interview, Sony was also at work on a bunch of other politically daring movies, including: Hack Attack, a film to be directed by George Clooney about the News of the World hacking scandal; Concussion, a Will Smith vehicle which takes on head trauma in the NFL; an adaptation of Glenn Greenwald’s Edward Snowden tome No Place to Hide; and a cinematic take on Sheryl Sandberg’s pro-feminism book Lean In.
It was being the riskiest studio in Hollywood that got Sony into this mess in the first place.