Hacking, Fear, and Maximizing Profits

December 18, 2014
A thought by James Berardinelli

Did Sony Pictures "cave in"? The question, like so many others involving terrorists and terrorism, is more complicated than it might seem. True, there's no credible evidence to support the idea of a terrorist plot being prepared against theaters. True, the threat is likely bluster - North Korea has been known to have "more bark than bite" in its international dealings. Consider all the empty rhetoric routinely spouted in their southern neighbor's direction. The fact is, however, that the threat was made and widely reported. And, while there's no way North Korea could mount an attack against 18,000 theaters, all it would take would be one. And, for that matter, it wouldn't have to be North Korea. Some copycat nutcase with no connection to the hackers could use this as an opportunity to get (in)famous. Remember Aurora?

It's all very improbable. Had The Interview opened on Christmas Day, it's likely nothing would have happened. Except perhaps vastly diminished audiences at multiplexes. Fear of diminished crowds and dwindling profits, not a fear of terrorism, is why AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and others said "thanks but no thanks" to Sony when it came to showing The Interview. But would it be reasonable to avoid multiplexes around the holidays because of an unsubstantiated threat?

This question is directed at parents with young children: Even knowing how unlikely an attack would be, would you take your kids to a multiplex playing The Interview on (or near) Christmas Day, even if it was to see something else? And, if you did, would you be calm and confident and not have a worm of worry niggling at the nether regions of your consciousness? My answer: I would have gone to see The Interview with minimal concern for my personal safety on December 26 but I would not have brought my 4-year old son to a theater for at least a week after Christmas. Even infinitesimal is too large a chance to put him in harm's way when there are plenty of other avenues of entertainment available to him. (And, while I have zero concern about the hackers making good on their threats, I can't say the same about copycats.)

Call me a wimp or cowardly if you want, but having a child changes the equation. And I'm not the only one who feels that way. Reality check: If The Interview had opened on Christmas Day, there would have been fewer patrons at multiplexes. Some people would have stayed away out of an abundance of caution...and this was never supposed to be a huge weekend anyway. People are easily spooked and what happened in Aurora dispelled the notion that multiplex theater auditoriums are safe havens.

The falling dominoes started there. To avoid a box office downturn, theater chains removed The Interview from their rosters. Now families will feel safe. Left with almost no locations in which to distribute The Interview, Sony pulled it back. No sense in opening it in about 100 locations nationwide. While I understand the concerns about censorship, the decision to pull the movie is less damaging to freedom of expression than the MPAA and its thrice-damned PG-13 rating.

As for The Interview, my guess is we haven't heard the last of it. $40 million movies with this much exposure simply don't go away. VOD or Netflix remain a future option even if a theatrical release is considered too risky. It may be months or years before the film sees the light of day but there will come a time when the terrorist threat has receded and there will be money to be had by unshackling it. There are lots of ways Sony could go with this but a permanent burial seems an unlikely avenue.

It's encouraging that this decision has sparked outrage and encouraged discussions and debates about censorship, freedom of expression, and where the line should be drawn in capitulation. Has a "dangerous precedent" been established? No - these are extraordinary circumstances and the lessons learned here are more about cybersecurity than censorship. And, looking at it from a coldly clinical perspective, Sony's actions are all about money. They have no control over the external situation but their actions at this point are designed to maximize return on a damaged property (or, put another way, minimize the loss). That's why The Interview probably won't go away. It's not being released next week because to do so would be financially disadvantageous (potentially ruinous). It will come back if and when Sony believes they have the best chance to limit their losses. That's the bottom line.