Sony may be weak, but Paramount is the true coward in the North Korea hacking
When writing a news story, I try not to editorialize too much. I frequently fail, but I try to keep my opinions out of it. I found it tough to do that with this story though, because goddamn if Paramount Pictures didn’t just do the most cowardly thing a major corporation could do. It’s the equivalent of a someone walking on the street, hearing a loud noise and screaming, then abandoning their family to run away as fast as possible.
That might be a slight exaggeration, but only slight.
Initially this article was meant to be a quick, 300 word or less news blast reporting on Paramount’s decision to not allow three theaters to show the film Team America in place of Sony’s recently cancelled The Interview. I failed. Scroll down and check the length of this piece and you’ll see how epically I failed. But stick with me, I have a point.
The thing is, while writing the news it struck me that of all the consequences stemming from the recent hacks by a group that has now been confirmed to be associated with North Korea, the quiet decision to rebuke three single theaters is the greatest act of cowardice, fear, and selfishness to come out of this whole mess. And more than that, if it goes unchecked it could be the start of a very, very bad trend.
By now you’ve probably heard all about the recent online attacks against Sony that led to the cancellation of The Interview. The hacks began with the release of private information that revealed, among other things, the salaries of Sony executives, their personal information, and a decision to screw over Jennifer Lawrence by paying her less than her costars that will probably come back to bite them in the ass. It evolved from there to include the release of personal emails, and eventually culminated with the threat of attacks reminiscent of September 11 against audiences, if the film was released to theaters.
Sony Pictures decided to pull the film, and it claims it “reluctantly” did so in response to theaters pressuring it.
Don’t believe for a second that this was Sony being noble. This was just the “out” that the studio had been looking for. Sony is one of the world’s biggest corporations, and it is uniquely qualified to distribute this film in other ways if it wanted. If it was really concerned with audience safety, it could release The Interview online as a Video On Demand (VOD). Charge a few bucks and the curiosity alone would make it a hit, possibly the biggest VOD hit to date.
That would not only help legitimize VOD distribution by introducing it to new audiences, Sony could build on it through its electronics. It could tout that if you buy a PlayStation 4 you’ll get a free voucher for the “controversial” new film and see what happens. But no, Sony is running scared, terrified at the prospect of more leaks revealing things like Kevin James salary for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. Even now that Sony has been publicly shamed into growing a backbone by the President, Sony still hasn’t revealed release plans. Given the insane amount of free publicity the film has already received, it is almost an instant hit.
Sony’s move is weak and predictable, but it’s understandable. People will probably lose their jobs over this, maybe even executives. None of the leaks were especially damning on their own – it’s not like one of the emails contained a map to where Sony execs have been burying hookers in the desert. The movies aren’t made of asbestos or anything. But taken out of context – or maybe even taken in context-it paints a picture of a studio that doesn’t know exactly what it is doing. Look no further than its uncertainty over the character of Spider-Man for proof of that.
Hollywood studio heads aren’t really supposed to be famous, at least not to the mainstream. It’s sort of like a ref in a sporting event – you only really know their names when they screw up. A teacher in Lawrence, KS has no reason to know or care who Amy Pascal, Sony Picture’s chairperson is, but they do now. It didn’t help that Pascal sent a few emails that were deemed racially insensitive insults of the President, but still. To get to the top of the Sony Pictures food chain Pascal may have muddied her karma along the way, but she may end up getting fired over something beyond her control.
Another studio, New Regency, also canceled an upcoming thriller that was to be set in North Korea, starring Steve Carell. It wasn’t exactly brave of the studio, but the film was still in the planning stages. No one knows what will happen next, so cancelling the film now is just easier.
Here’s where Paramount’s cowardice shines.
In response to The Interview’s cancellation, several theaters elected to fill the gap left by with the equally offensive-to-North Korea film, Team America. The move started with the Alamo Draft House in Austin, but other theaters quickly adopted the strategy as a way of giving the middle finger to North Korea and its threats.
The theaters were willing to take on any assumed risks, and anyone that was interested in seeing the film would almost certainly be aware of the threats. It was a laudable move that Paramount shit all over.
In order to show the movie and charge people for it, the theaters first needed to seek the approval of the studio – in the case of Team America, that means Paramount. This is generally a formality. As long as the studio gets its cut, why should it care that a theater is running an older movie to fill the gap another film left? It’s all profit for Paramount, and the added publicity couldn’t hurt home media revenues either.
And yet, Paramount is refusing to let the theaters show the film. And to make it even worse, the studio won’t even talk about it.
News of the refusal came first via a series of tweets from the Alamo Draft House and two other theaters, the Capitol Theater in Cleveland and Plaza Atlanta in Atlanta both confirmed they won’t be allowed to show the film. Multiple outlets have reached out to Paramount for explanation, but so far the studio has refused to comment.
At some point soon, Paramount will have to say something. The studio probably has a team of talented PR people and lawyers deciding on a way to save face and offer an explanation that sounds reasonable – maybe even noble, depending on how good their spin doctors are. My guess? They will claim that it is being “responsible,” and that the film could increase the international tension. It will be some variation of “Think of the children!”
Whatever they come up with will, of course, be total bullshit.
There is only one reason Paramount would refuse to allow three random theaters to show a 10 year old movie – they are scared shitless.
Keep in mind that the initial hacks went after the executives of Sony personally. Releasing things like salary and even threatening something like doxing would be embarrassing, but ultimately a minor annoyance. Most Hollywood execs don’t hide their identities, and many would love to brag about their salary. The real concern is the emails the hackers released.
Paramount doesn’t want its dirty laundry aired. Any major company with thousands of employees could be made to look bad if personal emails were released. People say stupid things when they don’t think they will ever be held culpable for it. There’s money on the line, too.
Studios answer to stockholders, and the shareholders wouldn’t want the studio’s inner-workings to become the sport of the media. So rather than run that risk, however faint it might be, Paramount caved. Epically.
Keep in mind that the hacks weren’t accomplished by a team of Mission Impossible-like agents, daringly rappelling through guarded locations. No, they found a lazy system admin and stole their all-access passwords. To thwart this type of attack, just tell the admins not to use “admin1” or something like it as their password and they’re good. (Yes, I know it was probably more complicated than that, but it is still a relatively simple hack.)
One of two things will happen in Hollywood going forward: First, studios will quietly remove any mention of North Korea from upcoming films, or at least temper the most extreme instances of them. Basically, North Korea will win, and people won’t even notice. The Second possibility is that one studio will take advantage of the cowardice and proudly proclaim that they are creating a new film called Suck it, North Korea, or something along those lines. Given the time it takes to make a film though, odds are the studios will buckle rather than stand. It’s more profitable. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Anyone remember the mess of a film that was the Red Dawn remake starring Chris Hemsworth? It replaced the Soviet threat with that of the People’s Republic of China. When the studio balked at the prospect of angering the Chinese government and potentially losing access to the burgeoning market, it digitally altered the entire film to replace all traces of China with North Korea.
It was a fairly pathetic and weasel-ish thing to do, but it was in keeping with Hollywood’s primary goal: to make money. Studios will likely see the move to appease North Korea in much the same way. It’s cheaper to be a coward.
For as weak as the Sony decision to cancel The Interview was, it at least made sense. The company was under attack for weeks, and the threat of actual violence against audiences was a legitimate out. Sony managed to stop the bleeding and pretend to look noble by doing it. That nobility is paper thin though.
If Sony was really concerned about the welfare of audiences, the studio could release the film online and charge half price. Curiosity alone would make it a hit. Hell, if Sony really wanted to show some balls, it would release it for free. Paramount’s move, however, was pre-emptive sniveling. It cheapens the medium as a whole, and opens the door for other studios to join it in cowering from a possible threat.
Sony is already a mess, and New Regency is skating under the radar. Paramount’s decision softens the public perception for the next time a studio buckles. And if Hollywood completely caves, it may make it more palatable for other mediums to cave. What happens when hackers go after news outlets for reporting negatively on North Korea? Will the game developers using North Korea as the enemy buckle? We aren’t there yet, but the door was just opened.