Thursday, December 18, 2014

Regarding The Interview, Sony couldn't win

Sony Pictures won't release the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview.

The movie's depiction of the assassination of North Korea's Kim Jong-un pissed off somebody enough to crack into Sony's internal computer network, steal 100+ TB of data, destroy much of the data in those computers, release embarrassing and/or sensitive internal messages and personal information to the public, then threaten to commit mass physical violence at theaters that showed the movie. (The North Korean government disclaimed direct responsibility but suggested that patriotic sympathizers might have been responsible.)

Sony, battered and demoralized by the onslaught, initially ducked the question of whether to call off the picture's release: it let theater owners decide whether they wanted to show the movie. Four of the biggest theater chains bailed out, joined by smaller chains throughout the U.S. and Canada. Faced with a lack of outlets, Sony had the excuse it needed to shelve the movie completely.

Nobody outside North Korea is happy.

The film’s collapse stirred considerable animosity among Hollywood companies and players. Theater owners were angry that they had been boxed into leading the pullback. Executives at competing studios privately complained that Sony should have acted sooner or avoided making the film altogether. To depict the killing of a sitting world leader, comically or otherwise, is virtually without precedent in major studio movies, film historians say.

And some Sony employees and producers, many of whom have had personal information published for the world to see, bitterly complained that they had been jeopardized to protect the creative prerogatives of Mr. Rogen and Mr. [Evan] Goldberg [with Rogen, the film's co-director].

On the superficial Hollywood-buzz side of things, Kevin Polowy's "Hollywood Slams Controversial Decision to Shelve 'The Interview' " sums things up as well as any report. It quoted tweets from various Hollywood celebrities.

Judd Apatow: “I think it is disgraceful that these theaters are not showing The Interview. Will they pull any movie that gets an anonymous threat now?”

Daman Wayans, Jr.: “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just do exactly what they say.”

(Incidentally, are Apatow, Wayans and the other critics ready to cover the theater owners' legal bills if anything happens?)

So, yeah. I think that about covers who's pissed. Now: how did this happen?

There are a lot of ways to chew on this mess.

Working backwards: were theater owners too quick to bail out?

The multiplex operators made their decision in the face of pressure from malls, which worried that a terror threat could affect the end of the holiday shopping season.
Once the hackers threatened physical violence, the film’s cancellation became almost inevitable, even though Sony spent a day steadfastly maintaining its plans for the release and premiere. Since the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings in 2012, Cinemark had fought lawsuits with a defense that said the incident was not foreseeable — a stance that would have been nearly impossible with “The Interview.”
I'll get back to this issue at the end.

What about Sony? Should it have killed the movie in the script stage, mindful of the unprecedented killing of a sitting world leader?

Put yourself in the shoes of Amy Pascal, co-shair of Sony Pictures Entertainment and chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment Movie Group. Your job is to make movies that make money. This project lands on your desk. The executive summary reads:

Seth Rogen's and James Franco's characters are sent to kill Kim Jong-un.

PLUSES: (1) Who doesn't despise North Korea? (2) Rogen's and Franco's movies have made a lot of money.

MINUSES: (1) The lawyers normally go apeshit when we use real people, especially living real people. However, we're talking Kim Jong-un (see PLUSES (1)). (2) If we nix this pic, Rogen and Franco will never work with us again (see PLUSES (2)). (3) If we push too hard to change the script, Rogen and Franco might never work with us again (see PLUSES (2)).


What would you have done? Bear in mind that you're on the hook to shareholders at the end of the day, and that the fallout might not have stopped with losing Rogen and Franco: other talent might decide to turn up their noses at working with Sony out of a sense of solidarity with Rogen and Franco, or as a stand against perceived censorship.

Should Rogen and Franco have been smarter or less controversial about this script? Maybe. On the other hand, the same perception of self-censorship that undoubtedly gave Sony Pictures' management pause undoubtedly was on Rogen's and Franco's minds, too.

I'm hearing "cybersecurity" experts talk about this as a national-security threat, which seems to me a gross overreaction insofar as it gives the impression that Sony's problem is the nation's problem. It's not. Sony Pictures put itself in a bad position because it ignored information security. The extent of the break-in is in large part the fault of Sony Pictures' management's failure to take infosec seriously, and if Amy Pascal or anyone else is going to lose her job, that should be the reason. (Incidentally, Slate published a piece by David Auerbach that argues the crack-attack was an act of "cyberterrorism" and that claims, "In terms of security, Sony Pictures wasn’t terrible, but just average. It’s likely that comparable amounts of damage could have been inflicted on many companies via the same vectors of attack." That's depressing.)

That said, if this fiasco puts a fire under Congress' ass to take critical infrastructure protection seriously, good. We're twenty years overdue.

Now, let's get back to the theater owners and the owners of the malls where many of the theaters are located.

Some have claimed that the crack-attackers' invocation of "9/11" in their threat of physical violence against movie theaters sent everyone into a panic. I think the New York Times piece got to the heart of the matter when it mentioned the Aurora, CO theater shooting, or more specifically, the legal fallout. However, I'm not going to criticize the theater or mall owners. Their response was and is rational under the circumstances.

The problem is that the American public expects perfect safety, and is willing to sue if it doesn't get it.

Don't get me wrong. If earlier generations hadn't screamed bloody murder we'd still be faced with a host of workplace-safety and consumer-safety problems: our food would be tainted, our cars dangerous, etc., etc. However, raising Cain about easily preventable dangers that can be mitigated by companies that want to do business is one thing. Going nuts over a vague threat by anonymous crackers is something else.

It's brain-dead, is what it is.

Think for a moment. North Korea's animosity toward the U.S. is not new. Sanctions have crippled the North Korean economy for decades. If North Korea were able and willing to punish the U.S. with a physical attack on our shores, don't you think it would have done so by now?

I'm assuming the North Koreans aren't able to mount a credible physical assault on U.S. territory (yet: they're almost certainly working on it). Yet even if you assume they are able, they've clearly been unwilling to mount such an attack in the face of crippling sanctions. Would they undertake one as some kind of overwrought revenge against what by many accounts is a mediocre movie? They have to know that any such attack would be tantamount to suicide for the Kim government, because the U.S. wouldn't hesitate to strike back hard.

You might argue that the threat might be carried out by suicidal sympathizers not under the North Korean government's control. That seems exceedingly unlikely. No North Korean capable of carrying out the attack could have done so without government support or permission. Yet a North Korean would not be allowed to carry out, or even to arrange, a physical attack against the U.S. for the reasons I've already mentioned. And how many technically sophisticated crackers exist who sympathize with North Korea, yet aren't North Korean or working with the North Korean government?

Another suggestion has been made, that the crackers aren't supportive of Kim Jong-un per se but are outraged by the highhandedness of Hollywood breaking the taboo on portraying the killing of a living leader. That's a pretty weak argument. It's clear the crackers were motivated solely by the affront to Kim, not any more abstract or general principle.

So who exactly would carry out a physical attack?

"Oh, but if it's even possible, we have to do what's best for public safety." Well yes, in theory we do. On the other hand, public safety would be optimized if each of us lived in a bombproof shelter and drank only distilled water. In practice, every public-safety measure is a tradeoff between safety and the need to keep daily life going.

The thing is, Americans are too intolerant of risk and too invested in a 100%-safe environment. We scream bloody murder and we sue left and right when the environment isn't as safe as we think it should be (except when it comes to gun ownership, curiously enough).

Yes, a threat was made. How credible was it, though? Not very, if you think about it. The thing is, no one thought about it, or if someone did, he or she realized there was not enough upside to defy the threat. You get points for putting public safety first, not for doing business as usual.

The risk-reward equation weighed in favor of releasing the film, except that we, the public, are abysmally bad at understanding risk.

Yet if Sony had insisted on releasing the film, it would have been excoriated for any act of violence that occurred — because, again, we're too damned timid. In fact, that timidity likely would have kept a lot of people away from the movie even if it had been released. So all that militated against Sony standing up for free expression, however banal, and releasing it.

Sony couldn't win.

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