By Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Now that some time has elapsed between the Sony hack and the release of the film that apparently precipitated it, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview (2014), there are more than a few lessons to take away from the entire affair not only in the areas of film production and distribution, but also in the areas of cybersecurity. I’m certainly no expert on the latter part of this equation, although I know, as I told The Los Angeles Times on December 13, 2014, that what happened with the Sony hack was “a wake-up call to the entire industry […] the studios have to realize there is really no such thing as privacy. The minute anything goes on the Web, it can be hacked.”
That’s true of any cybersystem, and one of the bleakest aspects of the new digital Dark Ages; the blind faith in cloud computing technology, encryption systems, and supposed digital storage as being some supposedly “safe” method of keeping scripts, internal e-mails, rough cuts of films, music files and other products of any entertainment company securely beyond the reach of piracy. It’s a joke. If you want a secure method of keeping a film safe, make a 35mm fine grain negative of the digital master and bury it in the vault.
As far as internal communication goes, don’t send e-mails; use face to face conversations – even phones, especially cellphones, aren’t reliably secure. Cellphones can track your every move, and routinely do, so the location, duration, and content of your conversations are a matter of nearly public record. Assume that everyone is audio or video taping you all the time. Don’t make stupid jokes about sensitive issues.
Realize that everything you say and do – even within the confines of your office or home – is as public as the back of a snail mail postcard – actually, much more public, since postcards seem to routinely go through the mail without the least bit of scrutiny. In short, the era of hypersurveillance is here, and the much vaunted concept of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon with it: there is no such thing as cybersecurity. So-called experts who are brought in in such situations prescribe various fixes, but the entire digital universe is so inherently porous and unreliable – almost existing to be hacked – that any such effort is doomed to perpetual, Sisyphian failure.
In this new atmosphere of perpetual vulnerability, Sony decides to go ahead with the production of The Interview, an extremely poorly made film in which two down-market television “tabloid news” journalists, producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) and his anchorman Dave Skylark (James Franco) snag an interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park, utterly miscast and completely unconvincing), and are then asked by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean dictator during the course of their visit, using a strip of ricin-impregnated paper to poison him with a seemingly off-the-cuff handshake. Naturally, the whole thing goes desperately wrong, with supposedly “hilarious” consequences, but fear not – by the end of the film (spoiler alert) Kim is eventually killed by a nuclear missile.
I don’t propose to discuss the film at any great length here – it’s long, poorly edited and badly scripted (by Dan Sterling, from a story by Rogen, Goldberg and Sterling) with numerous adlibs throughout, it would seem, from an examination of the B-roll footage readily available on the web, and desperately unfunny. Rogen and Goldberg’s idea of direction is to make sure that everyone is in the frame, make sure the set is evenly lit, and then shout “action” and see what happens, and the fact that the film cost a reported $44 million to make, not counting Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs, essentially films on a hard drive) and advertising, seems shocking, because it looks both shoddy and cheap. The sets, the props, the lighting, the overall physical execution of the film is simply throwaway “documentation,” nothing more. In short, it looks like a bad TV movie from the 1970s.
The first thirty minutes or so have some energy, especially the opening track back shot of a young North Korean girl sweetly singing a supposedly “cute” song advocating the destruction of the United States, and Franco – surely one of the most versatile and fearless actors of the era – inhabits the role of newshound Dave Skylark with manic intensity, throwing in bits of improv throughout to amp up his character, and the sequences setting up the entire premise of the film, including a surprisingly impressive appearance by Eminem near the top of the film, work well. As the CIA agent who puts Rogen and Franco up to the task of murdering Kim, Lizzy Caplan effectively underplays her role, and adds some sort of ballast to the film, but once the whole groaning mechanism has been put into place, the rest of the film is strictly by the numbers.
Naturally, it’s a bromance, with Skylark and Rapaport perpetually declaring their undying devotion to each other in the pursuit of tabloid stardom, and once the pair land in North Korea, Skylark is rapidly seduced by the smooth-talking Kim, and soon develops a similarly “bromantic” bond with the dictator, momentarily convinced that Kim is simply a misunderstood head of state who is somehow the victim of unfounded rumors, and really a “nice guy” after all. This illusion is shattered, however, when Franco discovers that everything that he’s seen in North Korea has been stage managed (a fake supermarket, for example, where all the fruits and vegetables are actually made of Plaster of Paris), and vows vengeance on Kim like a wronged lover out for the kill.
The television interview itself is supposed to consist of softball questions, entirely scripted by Kim’s security staff, most notably his aide Sook (Diana Bang), but Sook all too predictably and absolutely unconvincingly falls in love with Rapaport, decides to betray Kim, and assists Skylark in creating a much tougher Q&A session for the broadcast, which is being shown live around the globe via satellite, during which Kim breaks down like a blubbering child on camera, much to the astonishment of both the North Koreans viewing at home, as well as viewers throughout the world.
With their objective accomplished, Skylark and Rapaport effect an absolutely unconvincing escape from Kim’s compound with the aid of Sook, and in the process, “take out” Kim with the aforementioned nuclear missile, fired from a tank manned by Skylark, who has learned how to operate the vehicle during his “courtship” with Kim – an all too fittingly phallic end to a film that is filled with endless dick jokes, scatological humor, homophobic and sexist stereotypes, along with gung ho faux patriotism that rings as absolutely false as the entire premise of the film – that this is not only a dumb, stupid comedy, but that somehow it’s a dumb, stupid, gross meaningful comedy, sort of like an updated To Be Or Not To Be (1942) or The Great Dictator (1940).
So, OK, what happens next? The film is completed, and scheduled for the usual “saturation booking” strategy in two to three thousand theaters, with an opening date of Christmas Day, 2014, when a rogue organization who call themselves The Guardians of Peace hack into the Sony computer network and download thousands of embarrassing e-mails, digital copies of forthcoming films, interoffice memos, personal employee information, and a veritable raft of other materials (see Robb 2014). Tabloid news organizations around the globe jump on this trove of insider information and begin to publish it; the GOP ramps up their threats, promising a 9/11 style attack on theaters that screen it, and the major theater chains bail on screening the film.
With the traditional method of screening The Interview thus blocked, Sony decides first to shelve the film entirely, which brings down the condemnation of Barack Obama, to which Sony responds that the decision has been taken out of their hands – the major theater chains have simply decided not to screen the film for safety reasons, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Thus Sony and NATO – The National Association of Theatre Owners – are at an impasse, and The Interview seems certain to be shelved. With the major chains blocking release of the film, what is Sony to do?
At the last possible moment, Sony turns to YouTube Movies, Google Play and Xbox Video to release the film online as a paid download, costing $5.99 to stream or $14.99 to download in HD format, and simultaneously cobbles together a network of 331 independent theaters – the so called “art house” network – to open the film as planned on Christmas Day, the very theaters that Sony marginalizes with all their regular release patterns, theaters that they normally wouldn’t give the time of day to, but which are now essential if The Interview is going to get any theatrical play at all. As the days pass, more indie theaters join this coalition, for a total of 580 screens.
The strategy works, after a fashion; since The Interview is now “forbidden fruit,” even with the simultaneous video on demand (VOD) release, which the major theater chains will never countenance, the film rakes in more than $1 million on December 25th alone. By January 1st, 2015, that take has risen to $3,815,000 for theatrical play dates, and as the VOD revenues start to roll in, the film earns an additional $15 million in just days of availability, becoming the top video download for 2014. So that’s roughly $19 million to date, and this is only January 3, 2015, just eight days after the film’s release; when The Interview comes out on DVD and Blu-ray, it will undoubtedly rack up additional revenues (see Bray 2015).
Compared, of course, to the projected rollout of some 2,500 theaters or so, these figures are simply not enough to erase the expense of making and marketing the film; The Interview is still obviously very much in the debit column in terms of sheer financial statistics. But Sony, by putting together this last minute strategy of desperate independent theaters, more than happy to fill their auditoriums with anything that’s a sure ticket, along with online downloads and streaming, and as a of a few days ago, regular cable television distribution, has managed to circumvent the major chains and at least get the film before the public, which many are hailing as a victory for freedom of speech – and it’s difficult, at least for me, to dispute this claim.
For though the film itself is absolutely wretched, and has only enough gags to sustain a slightly-above-average Three Stooges two reel comedy – one with Shemp, not Curly – and even has a “retro” Columbia Pictures logo at the top, with the Three Stooges’ signature music on the soundtrack – Sony now comes out of this whole situation looking much more like a fearless defender of the First Amendment than anything else, and although the legal fallout over this entire affair will continue to unfold for quite some time, and The Interview will take a long time to break even, it isn’t the corporate disaster that it could have been, especially from a public relations viewpoint.
But as Nick Statt asks in CNET, does this makeshift release pattern mark “an industry revolution” or is it a “total fluke”? As Statt pointed out,
“the weird, winding path this film has followed in the past few weeks makes it anything but a normal distribution experiment, and we shouldn’t expect other studios to follow suit anytime soon. Yet the impact of a Hollywood film arriving online a day before its release and in a tiered pricing model that is consumer-friendly is raising the question: At what point will Hollywood be forced to face its dysfunctional relationship with the Internet? [—]
In 2013, the American movie industry attracted fewer viewers to physical movie theaters than in previous years, according to a report released in March by the Motion Picture Association of America. Ticket sales have fallen 11 percent between 2004 and 2013, according to the report. Meanwhile, sales of television shows and movies on the Internet jumped by 47 percent last year to $1.2 billion, and rentals by 5 percent to $2 billion, according to the Digital Entertainment Group.
It’s easy to see why the film industry and theater chains are staunch in their position about same-day releases. A family of four may spend $40 to $60 on a film like The Interview in a theater versus $6 at home.”
And yet even though they did not actually “create” the enormous viral buzz behind The Interview’s tortured release, Sony has clearly benefited from it, both in terms of good will – except from the national theater chains, who are still furious – and in pioneering what may become the next viable model for film distribution in the 21st century. No, scratch that – this will become the next viable model, and indeed the dominant model, for film viewing in the new millennium.
While there will always be certain huge, spectacle driven films, like the upcoming Star Wars project, that will attract rabid fan bases – and one can hardly imagine a safer or less significant franchise than the tepid Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, DC and Marvel “universe” films – especially when driven by aggressive promotion at Comic-Con, a cultural force which has come to rule the mainstream box office, for many films, if it isn’t available in theaters, and yet viral demand can be created through social media, controversy, or some other sort of astute marketing campaign, The Interview has proven that people will turn out in droves to see such a film.
In short, if, like House of Cards, you can only see it on Netflix, then, by God, you’re going to sit in front of your computer like a zombie and watch the whole damned thing in one binge viewing session, as current consumer surveys have indisputably shown (see Beres 2014). More and more conventional television programming is moving to the web; as newer platforms proliferate, theatrical motion pictures will surely follow. The major studios have long had a love/hate relationship with theaters, or perhaps hate/hate might be a better term, ever since the studios were forced to spin off the theaters they once owned as part of the Consent Decree on May 3, 1948.
The studios force onerous terms on the theater chains, and yet, for the moment, they can’t live without them. Just as the shift to digital got rid of the need for 35mm prints, reduced shipping costs, and allowed studios an unprecedented degree of control on the screening of their films, through the use of DCPs and their accompanying Key Delivery Messages (KDMs, codes used to “unlock” the films for each individual screening), now the studios would dearly love to take the next step, and get rid of theatrical distribution altogether. But they can’t – not quite yet.
So, in the end, what does the whole damn Sony mess prove? I would posit the following takeaways:
*Online and VOD distribution is the coming thing, and will soon dominate the mainstream film marketplace;
*but theaters will remain an essential part of the picture for big budget mainstream spectacle and mass entertainment films, even though studios would like to bypass them;
*the studios are going to have to recognize that there is no such thing as digital security, and adjust their business practices accordingly;
*and yet The Interview is very much a fluke, and a financially unprofitable one at that, but still offers an early clue to a new direction in viewing platforms.
There is no doubt that the entire imbroglio over The Interview is an irreproducible phenomenon. Rogen and Goldberg thought they were going to make another dumb, stupid, sophomoric comedy with an outrageous premise that would lure viewers into theaters in the hope of seeing more slapstick along the lines of This Is The End (2013), which Rogen directed and starred in, along with James Franco; or perhaps David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express (2008), which again starred Rogen and Franco.
They didn’t bank on a major computer hack – possibly from North Korea – of the studio that produced it; they didn’t bank on the whole thing blowing up and becoming one of the major news stories of 2014; they didn’t know that the major theater chains around the country would then refuse to run the film; they didn’t know that this would then become a very real issue of free speech – no matter how poor the film is, this is nevertheless quite true; and they certainly didn’t have any idea that Sony would then implement the rather revolutionary idea of patching together, literally on one day’s notice, a ragtag coalition of 331 independent film theaters, desperately hungry for commercial product usually denied them, and simultaneously release the film on the web; and that, in the end, though the release emerged as a “moral victory” for Sony, that the film would ultimately lose money in the process – all along, Rogen and Goldberg thought they were making a safe, lowest common denominator, mainstream dumb movie – and suddenly it became something much more.
These certainly aren’t the only issues circulating around The Interview, but it’s a start. If nothing else, it has put into sharp relief the tensions between theatrical and web distribution; the uneasy relationship between the studios and theaters; the facts that, in the internationally pervasive era of the web, we are all constantly interconnected, whether we like it or not; and that social issues will continue to impact even the weakest, least competent films if they have overt political content. The Interview may be one of the worst films of 2014, but it is also one of the most influential, not only for the content of the film, but also for the fact that despite the nationwide lockdown on the film by theaters, it still found an audience. What this portends for the future, we shall have to wait and see.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema for Anthem Press, London. His newest books are Cinema at the Margins (2013), Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; the book is a required text in universities throughout the world. His newest book, Black & White: A Brief History of Monochrome Cinema, is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press in 2015.
Beres, David (2014), “Half Of All Adult Americans Now Admit To Binge-Watching TV”, The Huffington Post, 11 December.
Bray, Hiawatha (2015), “Online Release Saves The Interview, But Theaters Still Rule”, The Boston Globe, 2 January.
James, Meg and Ryan Faughnder (2014), “Fallout From Sony Hack May Alter How Hollywood Conducts Business”, The Los Angeles Times, 13 December.
Richwine, Lisa (2014), “Sony’s Interview Lands on Pay TV And In 580 Theaters”, Reuters, 31 December.
Robb, David (2014), “Sony Hack: A Timeline”, Deadline, 22 December 22.
Statt, Nick (2014), “The Interview Online Release: Industry Revolution or Total Fluke?”, CNET, 26 December.
Tassi, Paul (2014), “The Interview Made $15M At The Digital Box Office On A $44M Budget”, Forbes, 29 December.
“May 3, 1948: U.S. Supreme Court Decides Paramount Antitrust Case”, The History Channel.