Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Interview: North Korea Punks Sony and Hollywood

I don't like confrontations. However there are situations where some people or organizations will provoke a conflict to take something from you or yours. Maybe it's your lunch money or a job promotion. Maybe it's your self-respect. Maybe someone has insulted your little sister. When these things happen the only thing you can do is fight. Someone wants to throw down? You give them all they expect and more. You need to punch the bully in the mouth. You won't always win. You may get a beatdown, figuratively or even literally. But by fighting back you raise the cost of the clash. Bullies, like other predators, seek easy weak prey. If they have trouble taking things from you then even if they win the resulting fight this time, the next time they may leave you alone.  When you fight back you might win. You show the bully and other observers that the bully made a mistake. By refusing to cave to extortion you reveal that it's the bully, not you, who is the weak cringing coward. Sometimes just standing up to a bully may end the situation. It's hard to say for sure. But it's certain that allowing yourself to be bullied, to be insulted, to be humiliated, will bring more of the same. Once you get on your knees for someone it's pretty difficult to stand up straight again. Unfortunately Sony executives, other Hollywood magnates, film distributors and theater owners never seemed to learn this critical life lesson. Hackers connected to the North Korean government broke into Sony's databases to steal sensitive, private and confidential information. They warned Sony not to release The Interview, a Seth Rogen satirical comedy about the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. 

The hackers threatened to publicize other private information or to engage in unspecified 9-11 type actions. They also threatened Sony's vendors and business partners. Sony and US film distributors crumpled like a wet paper bag. Major theater chains declined to show the film. Sony pulled the film from release. 

Fearing that the exact precedent about bullies which I described above was being set, other theaters planned to feature the older movie Team America: World Police, which made fun of Kim Jong-Un's equally oddball late father Kim Jong-Il, but Paramount Studios pulled that film as well. And just in case anyone who was super special stupid might have missed the point of what was going on here, the severely English language challenged hackers sent an email to Sony that congratulated Sony for the speed and intensity of its kowtow to their demands. The email also stated that if Sony knew what was good for it, it would ensure that that The Interview was never released in any format, theatrical, video on demand, web based or otherwise. 

"Very wise to cancel 'the interview' it will be very useful for you," read the message. "We ensure the purity of your data and as long as you make no more trouble." "Now we want you never let the movie released, distributed or leaked in any form of, for instance, DVD or piracy," wrote the hackers.

So let's review. The US claims to have a belief in freedom of speech. The important concept in freedom of speech is not that a work can't be criticized or mocked or even boycotted but rather that our government can't put in prior restraint to tell the artist what he or she can create. And obviously the government can't allow private actors to employ threats of violence or actual violent acts to prevent an artist from creating or sharing his work. North Korea has no First Amendment or concept of free speech. The only rule in North Korea is don't upset Fearless Leader. That may work for North Korea but US Sony and the theater chains made a big mistake in allowing North Korea to export its censorship into the US market. If a bovine butterball like Kim Jong-Un can get Sony to wet its Depends, what might other dictators or for that matter interest groups seek to do? The implied power of hackers just went to an entirely different level, one light years beyond where they were previously. Make no mistake, Sony will not be the only corporation or organization impacted by this surrender. Other groups and other governments will seek to target US based media companies for censorship. Other studios are already "rethinking" films that are set in North Korea or make any sort of reference to North Korea. This was a test. Sony and Hollywood failed it. They talk a good game about freedom of speech and standing up for artists but when it comes down to it they're just cowards. I should point out that I'm not the biggest Rogen or Franco fan. The Interview could very well be an unfunny movie full of jokes about body functions, obesity and gay sex, all of which seem to fascinate Rogen greatly.

Being cynical I wonder if distributors were really just worried that this movie would be a financial turkey and therefore jumped at the opportunity to drop it. That could be. But that's not the point. We wouldn't permit the US government to tell us we couldn't make or watch a movie. So why are we letting the North Korean government tell us what to watch? If globalization means letting Pacific Rim communist dictatorships influence or censor American media,  then we need to reset some things. Hollywood once made movies and shorts satirizing Nazis. It made movies about evil communists during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But today's studio heads have no guts. More's the pity. It should be a reminder to us that media corporations  have no real interest in First Amendment rights. Kim Jong-Un just made Sony cringe and roll on its back. American business leaders have gotten soft. Sony has stated that it still intends to release The Interview but we'll see.
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