Sony Pictures, Theaters; Everyone Caved

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Sony Pictures, Theaters; Everyone Caved
| published December 20, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

According to actor Rob Lowe, who has a small part in the new movie The Interview, “everyone caved.” “The hackers won,” Lowe said in his widely circulated Twitter message.

But according to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, who spoke to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an in-depth interview televised Friday night, no one at Sony Pictures caved-in. Lynton shifts the blame squarely onto the movie theater chains, who, in the short space of four or five hours last week each withdrew their plans to include The Interview on their schedules. Meanwhile, spokespersons for AMC, Regal Entertainment, Carmike Cinemas and other franchises say that Sony walked away first, essentially pulling all backing for the comedy and ceasing any efforts at promotion and marketing. Retail center and shopping mall owners’ trade groups and associations weighed-in also, saying that they might have backed the film despite safety concerns, but the decision was up to the theaters.

Everyone is blameless. Everyone is at fault.

The finger-pointing could turn a lot uglier before the month is out. Indeed, amidst the complex and multi-layered storm surrounding the massive cyber-attack against Sony, the repercussions appear to be spilling outward in many unexpected ways, now even into our concepts of freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and the right to peacefully assemble.

In a press conference, President Barack Obama told reporters that it was a mistake for Sony to have pulled the movie. Apparently there are thousands in the creative and acting community of Hollywood who agree, and folks as diverse as George Clooney, Michael Moore, Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Judd Apatow, and Jimmy Kimmel have blasted the corporate chiefs at Sony for their withdrawal of the film.

Kimmel tweeted: [this] is an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.” Carell posted this: “A sad day for creative expression.”

Outrage has come from nearly all directions, and from all corners of the political big tent. Republicans, too, have called the cancellation of The Interview an act of cowardice, and one which will no doubt inspire future malcontents of all kinds to engage in whatever form of threat it takes to dismiss material—movies, television, books, art, drama—they find offensive.

But Sony Pictures, which has a multitude of serious business on its agenda for the foreseeable future, told Zakaria that the press and the public—and even the President—is mistaken when it comes to the sequence of events. Asked by Zakaria if Sony caved, Lynton said no.

“We have not caved,” Lynton said, “we have not given in. We have persevered. And we have not backed down.”

Though it is not crystal clear that the FBI and other investigative authorities—including Fire Eye’s Mandiant cyber-security unit—have placed the blame 100% on North Korea, the official U.S. position seems to be that the government of Kim Jong-un is behind the attack, possibly with the help of outside hackers, mercenary coders and cyber-terrorists in China, Taiwan, Thailand, or Russia. The investigation could take many more weeks or months to complete. Those with close ties to the investigation tell reporters that the hackers were careful to route their attack through computer servers all over the world in a deliberate effort to thwart detection.

The cyber-attack at Sony Pictures caused incalculable damage. Tens of thousands of emails were lifted, thousands of documents stolen, employee records pilfered, and financial spreadsheets purloined. Along with the corporate material, digital copies of movies were stolen and immediately made available on the internet. Millions of copies of the unreleased films were downloaded. The lost revenue could run into the millions, but it gets worse: Sony Pictures is now being sued, in more than one court and more than one jurisdiction, by current and former employees who say that Sony was negligent in the protection of personnel data. Among stolen files are employee addresses, social security numbers, medical insurance records, and even cell phone numbers. An unfavorable outcome in those class-action suits could cost Sony millions.

In the meantime, the rapidly-evolving nature of the story seems to serve as a lesson. U.S. Senator Angus King (D-Maine) has said that the cyber-attack on Sony Pictures is a wake-up call to a nation that is 1) now almost entirely dependent on digitally stored data and web communications, and 2) conversely, totally unprepared for the aftermath of such an attack. King drew a straight line from the attack on Sony, which caused no irreparable harm to U.S. infrastructure, banking or commerce: if an attack like this against a Hollywood film company could cause this much disruption, how will we cope as a nation with a serious attack against the U.S. power grid, air traffic control systems, or railway transportation, or major commercial banks?

Back in Pyongyang, the government of North Korea states publicly that it had nothing to do with the attack, and warns the United States that it is playing a dangerous game by accusing North Korea of engaging in sabotage. The government of Kim Jong-un says it demands that it participate in any investigation into the cyber-attack, and warned of “grave consequences” for the U.S. should it persist with the public accusation. Pyongyang has also called the conclusions of the FBI “slander.”

But in statements released this weekend by the FBI, the U.S. National Security Administration (NSA), and the National Security Council, all said that U.S. investigators are certain of North Korea’s involvement.

“As the FBI made clear, we are confident the North Korean government is responsible for this destructive attack,” said Mark Stroh, a National Security Council spokesman. “We stand by this conclusion. The government of North Korea has a long history of denying responsibility for destructive and provocative actions.”

As for North Korea’s insistence that it be included in any further probes into the attack, the White House has so far demurred. “If the North Korean government wants to help,” Stroh said in his statement, “it can admit its culpability and compensate Sony for the damages this attack caused.”

It remains unclear if The Interview will see the light of day anytime soon. Numerous offers and negotiations are under way to identify a proper venue for the release of the film, including Netflix, Amazon and several premium and pay channels.

Michael Lynton of Sony Pictures took to the media most of Friday and part of this weekend to attempt to regain control of the narrative. The image of Sony Pictures as having been cowed into submission by a third world power does not sit well within the wider world of Hollywood, but Sony can—fairly, it should be added—argue that it controls none of the pipelines or wires which connect the American moviegoer (at home or in theaters) with content. Ultimately, that control belongs to companies like Netflix and Amazon, and to premium content providers like HBO and Showtime, or to broadband carriers like Comcast, Time Warner, Bright House, and Wide Open West.

In the meantime, The Interview remains stuck in high-profile limbo, and may become the most famous movie to never see the light of the screen.

Related Thursday Review articles:

What Now for Sony Pictures?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 18, 2014.

Sony Pictures Cancels Release of The Interview; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 17, 2014.