The events surrounding Sony’s decision to cancel the release of the latest Seth Rogen/James Franco buddy comedy, The Interview, have been rather disturbing to watch unfold. First, hackers unleashed several of Sony’s upcoming films online. Then the second warning shot came with the leaking of internal emails and confidential documents. The emails in particular were damaging partly because they confirmed the arrogant sense of white privilege that many of us believed existed within the industry. However, it was the third warning, in the form of thinly veiled death threats towards theatres and movie patrons, that was the most damaging of all. The threats themselves were not the unsettling part, but rather that the studio buckled because of them.
Shortly after Cineplex, Canada’s largest theatre chain, announced that they, like a few of their American counterparts, were going to postpone the release of the film in their theatres, the shoe dropped. Sony came out and declared that they were shelving the film. A move that put the cherry on the disastrous sundae that the studio has been forced to eat over the last few weeks. It is a decision that will no doubt be seen as the tipping point for a company in desperate need of putting its house back in order. However, make no mistake; this issue has officially become bigger than a mere movie.
What the decision has done is solidified, dare I say gave legitimacy to, a new wave of cyberbulling that has been prevalent for most of 2014. Whether it was the infamous “gamergate” scandal, the leaking of private photos of nude celebrities, or the online racial slur and threats thrown at black hockey players like P. K. Subban, the Wild West that is the internet has gotten a lot more ornery. Death threats and collective shaming have become more common than the ones and zeros found in basic computer codes. Now I understand from a business perspective companies like Sony and Cineplex were backed into an uncomfortable corner. While it is highly doubtful, though not implausible, that a mysterious online organization can orchestrate a deadly attack on 3000 plus theatres, and the surrounding areas, at the same time no less – putting them in the same league as organizations like ISIS and the Taliban – Sony had to give the threats serious consideration. They would have been foolish not to.
The problem with the decision they made is that it officially gives the bullies the keys to govern the playground as they please. This is no longer about Hollywood being insensitive to the people of North Korea. In some ways it never was about that. Let us be honest for a moment, Hollywood has always used other races and cultures as their personal whipping boys. Just ask those of Arab descent how they felt about their culture being portrayed as villains in the numerous action movies of the 80’s and 90’s?
This is all about fear and power. The latter of which Sony’s tormenters now have in spades.
Now with The Interview put on the shelf, the hackers have officially become judge and jury on what is acceptable in film and art in general. Some may think that this line of thought is a bit of a stretch, but is it really? How do we know that they will not turn their gaze upon another studio or film? What then? What is to stop another disgruntled organization from doing the same thing? Not just to the film world, but other facets of life as well. To quote Alan Moore, “who watches the watchmen?”
Another unsettling thing about this hostile new wave of online bullying is that all this energy is being wasted on frivolous things. Instead of shutting down a film from being released, exposing the hypocrisy of studio executives, or showing off Jennifer Lawrence’s breasts, one would think those hacking talents could be used to locate the nearly 300 girls still missing in Nigeria, or to preemptively notify law enforcement so that gunmen do not kill 141 people, most of them children, in Pakistan. Gone are the voices of reason and diplomatic discussion. Now everything has been reduced to “do as I say or else…”
Again, this is not so much a lament on the fact that there will be one less comedy released in 2014. I have no doubt that The Interview will eventually surface again once the heat dies down. If nothing else, the controversy has made the film even more intriguing – forbidden fruit often is – than before. Besides, the easiest way to defuse controversial films is to simply let people see it and judge for themselves. One just needs to recall 2006’s Death of a President, a film that presented a fictional assassination of George W. Bush, who was still in office at the time. It was a controversy that turned out to be much ado about nothing for those of us fortunate enough to see the film at TIFF.
At the end of the day this is really about the unsettling nature and evolution of cyberbullying. Sony’s decision sets a dangerous precedent that will have major ramifications in not just the world of film, but in other areas of art and life as well.