Sony’s $60 Million Blunder

“This is not an artistic or free speech matter—it is about Sony’s wisdom in choosing to support someone else’s free speech.”

It’s not entirely clear how much Sony Pictures spent to make and market The Interview, though estimates range from $60 million to $90 million. Nor is it clear what damage the film-related hacking scandal will do to the company’s reputation over the long term.  Despite the uncertainty in these two areas, however, it should be obvious that top executives blundered in approving the project in its current form.  If I were a Sony shareholder, I would want a much better explanation than Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton has offered so far.

NPR’s Melissa Block deserves praise as one of few journalists to ask Lynton “who thought it was a great idea to make a movie that shows the assassination of a head of state and treats that as comedy.” This should be the central question in this entire ridiculous story.  Lynton’s response—that “we saw this as a comedy” and that “political satire has a long tradition in film”—is weak and superficial.

First, there are important differences between The Interview and other satirical films dredged up in the current discussion.  Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, parodying Adolf Hitler, did not use Hitler’s name or portray his assassination.  Team America: World Police, which some have mentioned as a recent film that also deals with North Korea, shows the death of Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-Il but only in cartoon form—one step removed from the more realistic live-action killing of his son in The Interview.

More important, however, this is not an artistic or free speech matter—it is about Sony’s wisdom in choosing to support someone else’s free speech.  To be clear, Seth Rogen—who appears to be the creative force behind the film—should have every right to make whatever movies he wants to make.  Neither the United States government nor any foreign government should have the right to apply political censorship to the American movie industry.  That is not the real issue, however; the real issue is who should be willing to pay to produce a film that includes scenes depicting the assassination of an actual living head of state.  How could executives at Sony—a shareholder-owned public company—make a decision like that?  Public companies are not the place to look for political courage; they can’t afford it.

In fact, as Mike Myers’ character Dr. Evil devastatingly reminded in the Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning the affair, film studios regularly cave in to political pressure from every possible domestic constituency (Notably amid this debate over censorship, NBC elected to excise this segment of Myers’ monologue in its online presentation—I watched in on my DVR, but have not yet found the full version online.  It would be interesting to know why NBC edited this out.)  Though Myers did not mention it, studios also routinely modify films to increase their appeal or avoid controversy in major foreign markets, including in the People’s Republic of China.  In other words, major Hollywood studios know that for commercial reasons, they need to be careful about political and other content in their movies.  This is why some films appeal only to smaller privately owned and independent studios.

Indeed, according to press reports, once it became clear that Rogen wanted to kill Kim graphically on screen, top executives at the studio’s Japan-based parent company recognized that their American subsidiary was making a politically problematic film and took unprecedented steps for the company in pushing Rogen to make changes. However, neither they, Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal, nor Lynton appeared to fully appreciate the pressures they would face if Pyongyang threatened retaliation either directly or—as seems to have happened—indirectly with (im)plausible deniability, in this case through hackers that the Obama administration has linked to the North Korean government.

For his part, Rogen acknowledges that he and others discussed changing the name of the leader in The Interview, but states that “And then we thought, like, whose feelings are we trying to spare by doing that — Kim Jong Un?”  Other sources report that Rogen refused Sony’s Pascal’s request to change the death scene, because “the joke won’t work” if viewers can’t easily see that Kim’s head is exploding, essentially intimidating Pascal with the possibility that “this is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy.” What Rogen appears not to have realized was the danger in Kim’s potential actions, not his feelings—after all, Kim Jong-un has nuclear weapons.