A multi-billion-dollar Hollywood studio was brought to its knees by nine disjointed sentences from an anonymous hacker.
"Warning," the threat began. "We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places The Interview be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to. Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you'd better leave.) Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment. All the world will denounce the SONY."
It should go without saying that the threat — which marked the culmination of a weeks-long campaign against the North Korea-set comedy — is ridiculous. The Interview was slated for release in thousands of theaters on Christmas Eve. Are we supposed to believe that North Korean sleeper agents are lying in wait, ready to attack movie theaters across the nation on December 25? And how many terrorists have previewed their assaults on the public by specifically warning their targets eight days in advance?
The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement saying there was "no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States." Repeat: The Department of Homeland Security, which was expressly created to protect Americans from threats like this, issued a statement stating that this threat was not credible. Everyone involved with The Interview immediately backed down anyway.
Hollywood's retreat is not about public safety. It's not even about fear. It's about money. This decision is the result of a financial calculation that The Interview is no longer worth the trouble it's causing — and the ramifications of that calculation will be factored into every movie Hollywood produces from now on.
You can blame America's five largest movie theater chains, which uniformly declined to screen the movie. But Sony Pictures, the ostensible victim in this situation, isn't off the hook either. By forcing the theater chains to make the decision, Sony refused to stand behind the movie it had produced and promoted, with full knowledge of the content it contained, because of one non-credible threat. Sony even had the chutzpah to issue a grandiose statement claiming that the company "stands by our filmmakers and their right to free expression." How is this anything but a decision not to stand by their filmmakers and their right to free expression?
You might not care about The Interview. I certainly didn't before this controversy. But the implications here are much, much bigger than one (probably) stupid comedy. Take the near-instant decision to kill a planned North Korea-set thriller starring Steve Carell, fresh off his career-altering performance in Foxcatcher. ("I find it ironic that fear is eliminating the possibility to tell stories that depict our ability to overcome fear," said would-have-been director Gore Verbinski in response to the project's cancellation.)
Will Hollywood now flee from any movie that tackles anything that could even theoretically be considered politically controversial? Why would a Hollywood studio take the risk? In a terrific article at Grantland, published just before The Interview imploded, Mark Harris sounded the death knell for Hollywood creativity based solely on financial terms. "In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business," he wrote. "They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period."
And now we have this fiasco — yet another reason to avoid producing anything that doesn't appeal to the largest, blandest, most homogenized audience. Sure, The Interview was a little edgier than your average studio film, but it wasn't exactly a gamble; Seth Rogen and James Franco have collaborated on two other R-rated action-comedies, and they've both been solid hits. Now the bar has been lowered that much further.
The writing was already on the wall before Sony formally decided to pull The Interview. The embarrassing fallout from the Sony hack was enough to put a bullet in anything that might enrage some group of people somewhere. It's given every executive at every movie studio some time to think long and hard about the skeletons in their closet. And on a purely rational level, they'd have to conclude that they can ensure they'll avoid similar problems by staying away from movies that might invite retaliation. They're not in the business of art; they're in the business of money, and they just found another excuse to minimize their risks.