If an anonymous group threatened in mid-December to harm bakeries without saying where, when or how, would every doughnut shop and cake vendor feel compelled to shut down through the holiday season? Of course not. Yet a threat by an anonymous group of hackers led the country's major theater chains to close their doors to “The Interview,” Sony Pictures' edgy comedy about a planned assassination of North Korea's Kim Jong Un. The hackers are engaged in terrorism, pure and simple, in an effort to stop people from seeing the movie. But even though the terrorists won this round, Sony still can — and should — make the movie widely available through other means.
The so-called Guardians of Peace, whom U.S. intelligence officials have reportedly linked to the North Korean government, assaulted Sony's computer network in late November, stealing files and erasing hard drives. After titillating industry-watchers for a few weeks by leaking embarrassing emails and sensitive personal information about Sony employees — as well as exposing rank-and-file studio employees to identity theft by releasing their Social Security numbers — the hackers upped the ante this week by promising a “bitter fate” to those who see the movie. “Remember the 11th of September 2001,” the group said. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places [that show “The Interview”] at that time.”
The nation's five largest theater chains dropped the film within a day, saying they wanted to wait until federal authorities had completed their investigation or the hackers had been caught. Sony responded Wednesday by announcing that it would not release the film to theaters next week, with no hint as to its future plans.
Considering the Guardians' demonstrable ability to wreak havoc digitally and the potential — however remote — that someone could get hurt, theater owners are in a very tough spot. Yet if the hackers succeed in keeping “The Interview” out of theaters, it will surely not be the last time a group with an ax to grind makes such a threat. And there's no shortage of people around the world with axes to grind.
Sony can make the best of a bad situation by borrowing a tactic increasingly used by independent studios. It should make “The Interview” available through online and pay-TV video-on-demand services, which don't lend themselves to a headline-grabbing attack the way a crowded multiplex might. And if the studio really wanted to stick it to the Guardians, it would offer the movie at a price designed to maximize the number of viewers, not necessarily the revenue collected.
Judging from the early reviews, “The Interview” probably isn't worth the fuss. But the hackers picked this fight, threatening not just a single Hollywood studio but the millions of Americans likely to go to a movie during the holidays. And no matter what you think of the people behind “The Interview,” they represent any artist whose work may offend someone in power. That's the sort of speech we can't afford to have squelched.
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