The stakes for Sony's North Korea comedy "The Interview" got raised higher — a lot higher -- on Tuesday. The group calling itself the Guardians of Peace, which has conducted a devastating hack on Sony, suggested it would physically attack the theaters that show the Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg movie.
"We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places 'The Interview' be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to," the message said of the film, which features a fictional assassination of Kim Jong Un. It added, "The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001." The movie opens wide Christmas Day; its New York premiere is Thursday night.
The message turns "The Interview" release into a no-win situation. Show the film and Sony appears irresponsible, pull it and Sony appears bully-able. It would be easy to say the company should just press ahead, but unless the FBI can get to the bottom of all this and make some arrests, both Sony and theater chains would be exposing their customers to serious safety concerns.
And apart from the ethical issues are the economic ones--the cost of security would be high; the returns, given the threats, would be low.
Of course, if Sony pulls or postpones the release, it would look like it is engaging in (and in fact would be engaging in) the precise kind of kowtowing that the group wants in the first place. It would also send a terrible message about creative expression -- basically, if you don't like a movie, just threaten its patrons and studios will back down.
But through this unbreakable fog comes a possible solution. TV Guide editor Michael Schneider and Variety editor Pat Saperstein on Twitter Tuesday raised the prospect of a video-on-demand release. It's a nifty little suggestion. Put the film out on VOD (or Web) platforms on the day the film was to come out in theaters and charge a premium price — say $30 or $40 -- to view it. That would defuse the possibility of attacks on public gathering places, but would ensure the movie reached filmgoers right on schedule. Sony could split revenues with theater owners.
In fact, it could become exactly the kind of first-look digital experimentation — known in the industry as premium VOD — that many smaller distributors have been toying with but that the major studios have shied away from. Far from a disaster, "The Interview" would become a backdoor, Netflixian experiment in new platforms.
Theater owners are generally the main obstacle to PVOD and other bypassing measures. But it would be hard for them to object in such an extenuating circumstance. And assuming the revenue splits were generous, it would also greatly benefit the theaters. They'd collect a nice chunk of change without incurring many costs. And they'd now have a whole spate of screens--always at a premium over the holidays--available for other releases. (That this would offer a digital response to what's become a digital problem adds a nice ironic layer.)