Censorship and Free Speech: Did Sony Really Cancel The Interview?

January 7, 2015

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” –Bertrand Russell

With the horrific massacre at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo yesterday–apparently by Muslim fundamentalists upset by the magazine’s satires of Mohammed–the subject of censorship and freedom of speech is everywhere.

It may seem long ago in the world of 24-hour news, police shootings, protests, terrorism and of course the holidays, but just last month Sony Pictures, subjected to massive corporate hacking, was threatened against releasing its comedy The Interview, presumably at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is not only mocked in the film but also the target of an assassination plot. (It should be noted that there is growing skepticism that North Korea was in fact behind the cyberattack.) The September 11, 2001, terrorist attack was mentioned in a threat suggesting that violence would take place at any theater that screened the film (“We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. If your house is nearby, you’d better leave,” the December 16 message read in part).

Apparently giving in to censorious threats, Sony reportedly cancelled all plans to screen The Interview, feeling that it was better that no one saw the film than anyone be injured or killed by some terrorist act at one of the screenings.

Free speech advocates ranging from George Clooney to President Obama to the Center for Inquiry reacted with outrage, accusing Sony (and particularly its CEO Michael Lynton) of “caving in” to the threats by blocking the film’s release. If threats, no matter how serious, prevented the public from seeing a controversial film, it was clearly a slippery slope that could have serious consequences for artists, writers, and free speech. Would Sony or other studios refuse to release any future film that may offend someone?

However it seems that many, if not most, of Sony’s critics were acting on–and reacting to–misinformation. As The New York Times recently noted, Sony never planned (nor stated that they planned) a total blackout of the film. The choice of whether or not to screen the film was made by the individual theater chains, not by Sony. In the wake of the threats, “National Association of Theater Owners convened a board meeting. Through the day, the exhibitors were briefed by Sony executives (though not by Mr. Lynton), who took a position that infuriated some owners: The studio would not cancel the film, but it would not quarrel with any theater that withdrew it because of security concerns…. Carmike Cinemas, one of the country’s four largest chains, was the first to withdraw. By the morning of Dec. 17, owners of about 80 percent of the country’s movie theaters–including Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, and Cinemark, already mired in legal fights over a 2012 theater shooting in Colorado –had pulled out…” Sony thus cancelled the film’s original Christmas Day screening date–not the film itself.

Though Sony did not cancel the film–and despite offers to screen it by a vocal and defiant minority of independent theaters–when the vast majority of theater chains (rightly or wrongly) refused, Sony decided to look for other ways to release The Interview. Lynton and Sony were moving forward with plans to get The Interview to the public when, according to The New York Times, Sony “made a critical error. In a hasty statement, in some cases delivered orally to reporters, the studio said it had ‘no further release plan’ for The Interview. In fact, Mr. Lynton had been talking with Google’s chairman, Eric E. Schmidt, and others about an alternative online release –discussions that Google would later confirm publicly. But Sony’s statement was widely interpreted to mean Sony would shelve the movie for good, leaving an impression that it had caved to the hackers and a terrorist threat. The reaction was swift and furious. Hollywood stars and free speech advocates sharply criticized the decision.”

Realizing that Sony was being characterized as cowing to terrorist threats Lynton made the media rounds trying to do damage control and explain that Sony did not in fact “cave in” to pressure and that cancelling the premiere was not the same as cancelling the film’s release. In a December 20 interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, for example, Lynton discussed “a future release of the controversial comedy, saying the company is considering some sort of release on the Internet. Sony followed up on Lynton’s remarks with a statement that read, in part, ‘It is still our hope that anyone who wants to see this movie will get the opportunity to do so.’… Lynton told CNN that Sony had ‘a number of options open to us and we have considered those and are considering them.”

Lynton added that “In this instance the president, the press, and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened.” While this was interpreted by many as a self-serving, face-saving comment, the fact is that as CEO of Sony, Lynton was in a far better position to understand Sony’s situation than anyone else. Sony, though self-sabotaged by an unclear and incomplete statement (“no further release plan” might, but does not necessarily, mean “we plan no further release”) did make several attempts to clarify and explain the situation, but they were largely ignored and dismissed since they didn’t fit the narrative set by the press, pundits, and president. Lynton was in the unenviable position of trying to describe shades of gray to an outraged public who saw it as a black-and-white issue.

The misunderstanding that Sony had shelved the film or refused to release it was a common one. There are certainly grounds for criticizing Sony’s reaction to the hacking and threats (not to mention a bungled communications problem), but the complaint that the company had chosen not to release The Interview appears to simply be false. Film release dates are routinely shuffled and delayed by studios for any number of arcane reasons ranging from competition (any film opening the day of the next Star Wars is going to be ignored) to post-production delays. Just because The Interview‘s original Christmas premiere date was cancelled by Sony didn’t mean it might not be pushed back a few weeks to a calmer January 9 or 16 date after the holidays were over and some of the furor had died down.

Even had Sony chosen not to release the film to theaters (instead of theater chains refusing to show it), such an action would not be de facto censorship. Many films are not given a theatrical release for any number of reasons; there are thousands of direct-to-video movie releases each year and many different ways to distribute films including online streaming services. Having one less platform for a film to be seen is not censorship, does not prevent tens of millions of people from seeing it, and it is certainly not a total blackout of the film, as some had described it. Sony did in fact make The Interview available online for both rental and purchase on Christmas Eve and in a handful of theaters on Christmas Day (likely due at least in part to the public backlash); it is still screening across the country as of today.

It’s easy to become outraged at real and perceived injustices–and especially when the subject is charged with emotion, as censorship is. But this example reminds us that our actions and reactions should be based in truth and fact. It’s not hard to see how most of America got this story wrong, and there’s plenty of blame to go around, from Sony’s “hasty statement” of “no further release plan” (apparently referring specifically and only to a theatrical release); to the journalists who ran with it before seeking a clarification; to President Obama and other pundits failing to confirm
the information (The New York Times quotes Lynton as saying that the White House never contacted him before accusing Sony in a press conference of capitulating to terrorists by preventing the film’s release: “You know, the president and I haven’t spoken…I don’t know exactly whether he understands the sequence of events that led up to the movies’ not being shown in the movie theaters”); to the tens of thousands of people who shared their sincere outrage on social media about Sony’s (apparent) disregard for free speech.

Sometimes the news media gets it right, and sometimes they get it wrong. Early reports are usually among the least reliable, and because much of the public doesn’t understand the nuances of film distribution they assumed (wrongly) that Sony refused to screen the film at all, and later (wrongly) that Sony planned keep it from being seen at all. Whether the actions and reactions by Sony, the National Association of Theater Owners, President Obama, or others were justified or not is a legitimate question, but there are real-world consequences to misunderstandings (including a United States-led cyber-retaliation against a North Korean government that may not have even been involved in the hacking). Double-checking information is always warranted, from the public to the President.