So, let’s recap what happened since my last column three weeks ago. The subject matter was a pair of Christmas Day movies, “Unbroken” and “The Interview,” movies that each featured Asian men behaving badly.
One of those movies — “The Interview” from Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Columbia Pictures — ended up having a trajectory unlike any other movie ever released. The reverberations from its release will be felt for years to come — but not necessarily for its content.
Let’s hit the rewind button — but first, I have to ask: Did you do your patriotic duty as a loyal American and watch “The Interview”?
As I was writing my last column in advance of publication for Dec. 18, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced that the scheduled release of the R-rated comedy in more than 3,000 theaters on Christmas Day would be canceled indefinitely.
With my column mostly written, a note had to be added to the column with this news. The plot of the interview, incidentally, involved a news producer (Seth Rogen) and onscreen talent (James Franco) who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (Randall Park).
What would then transpire was unprecedented in U.S. movie history. The cancellation caused a storm of reaction, mostly slamming Sony for backing away from releasing the movie. Even in Washington, where no one agrees on anything, there was a bipartisan negative reaction to Sony’s decision, with even President Obama weighing in, calling the decision to pull the movie a “mistake.” This, by the way, had nothing to do with the content of “The Interview.”
Sony then changed course before Christmas and said it would release the movie after all, but in about 300 independent movie theaters on Christmas Day and on Christmas Eve via video-on-demand.
Why did all this happen? Backtracking even further, “The Interview” was canceled because Sony Pictures was the victim of a cyberattack right around Thanksgiving. Not only was that an embarrassment to the company, it was injurious to its employees and former employees who had personal information like home addresses and Social Security numbers released in a “data dump” by the hackers.
It was also a financial hit on the company since some recently released and as-yet unreleased movies that were in digital form were put on bit torrent sites. Then there was the release of internal emails between executives and producers that didn’t put the parties in the best light, to be diplomatic.
The hackers, calling themselves Guardians of Peace, threatened to attack movie theaters where the movie was supposed to play. The major theater chains backed away from contractual obligations to screen “The Interview,” despite the Office of Homeland Security’s assurance there was “no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States.”
Sony, meantime, said it wouldn’t force the theaters to show the movie. In light of the attack Wednesday on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in which Islamist militants murdered 12 people, maybe the concern was understandable, if unwarranted.
While some cybersecurity experts believed otherwise, on Dec. 19 the FBI stated publicly that North Korea was responsible for the cyberattack. By Dec. 21, Obama said the U.S. would respond “proportionately” to North Korea’s actions. (A few days later, North Korea’s Internet went dark for several hours; U.S. officials, when asked, refused to answer whether we were responsible for that.)
To answer the question I posed earlier, I actually did rent “The Interview” via Amazon for the purposes of being informed of its content for this column, though not out of any sense of patriotic duty.
It had some funny bits, to be sure, but in what must be a sign of me getting prudish in my old age, I thought the verbal humor was silly, crude and obscene. Slapstick always makes me laugh, though, and there were some bits that got me. Randall Park was the best thing about the movie, as he nearly managed to make Kim a sympathetic (and just plain pathetic) character. “The Interview” is not a must-see; it’s definitely skippable.
The biggest impact the movie will have is that it proved a big-budget Hollywood studio movie can be released via video-on-demand and do well. It’s made more than $30 million on VOD alone thus far, impressive if you consider the lead-up to the movie didn’t market it this way.
A sizable chunk of Americans now have broadband Internet and a big-screen TV. While I doubt going out to see a movie at a theater will ever go the way of the record store or video rental store, VOD will definitely appeal to people who would rather stay home on a Friday or Saturday night and watch something new. Unless Kim Jong Un is deposed by his countrymen who see him as an object of ridicule after seeing this movie, the viability of video-on-demand will be the true legacy of “The Interview.”
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.