One comedy writer on a week in which funny business became serious business
When the news began breaking that Sony was being threatened by North Korean hackers over its Seth-Rogen-and-James-Franco-starring, North-Korean-leader-assassinating comedy The Interview, I had one thought: “This is James Franco’s best performance art piece yet.”
And then the seemingly unthinkable happened: Sony actually pulled the film from theaters. To a movie studio, that’s a full-on financial surrender. The impact was immediate, and widely reported on. Sony would lose tens of millions. Filmgoers would miss a highly anticipated comedy with two huge stars. And the U.S. was suddenly finding itself “negotiating with terrorists” in arguably the weirdest way in its history.
But beyond these first-blush costs, The Interview cancellation has deeper, more alarming consequences for all of us. That’s because it exacerbates several negative trends. First and foremost, it erodes confidence in one of the last remaining, truly public spaces. Movie theaters are one of the few remaining places strangers from every social stratum gather to laugh, cry, and pay $18 for a box of Jujubes. Scaring people away from theaters only furthers our already increasing tendency to stay at home and get our entertainment there. Going to the movies, their artistic merits aside, act as a psychological balm for our real-world fears of terrorism and international calamity. Whether it’s Liam Neeson having yet something else taken from him, or the latest tights-clad superhero facing a global menace, at movies we can dream of “our side” winning alongside the members of our “team.” With a big source of that solace rattled, will we start channeling those anxieties elsewhere? The makers of Xanax certainly hope so.
From a creative standpoint, the hackers’ blow does no favors for the already-uphill battle for originality in Hollywood. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen The Interview (and not just due to my undying adoration of our Dear Leader Kim if he’s reading this), but I do know the screenwriter, and his work is brilliant and original. So here’s yet another shame: The North Korean gambit will rattle an already highly risk-averse Hollywood into steering even further into its formula of familiarity: remakes, reboots, and franchises. Although maybe this problem could contain its own solution: Six years from now, maybe Sony will be ready to make a remake of The Interview?
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]A week ago, our culture was consumed with gossip about misbehaving Sony executives sending petty emails to one another. Today, we’re all thinking about other countries and a globe filled with conflicts in need of solving.[/quote]
If a big-budget movie disappears and nobody sees it, can it still have a Hollywood ending? Not likely, but perhaps there are a few positive things that could emerge from the brouhaha—that is, if we are prepared to take advantage.
For one thing, The Interview backlash illustrates the real world impact of pop culture more than any film since 1997’s Wag the Dog. A week ago, our culture was consumed with gossip about misbehaving Sony executives sending petty emails to one another. Today, we’re all thinking about other countries and a globe filled with conflicts in need of solving.
And across social media, I have seen countless critics, celebrities, and spambots on Twitter unanimously assailing Sony’s cancellation and leaping to the filmmakers’ defense. Even the snarkiest of hipsters who wouldn’t be caught dead in a theater for a major studio release are feeling the sting of free expression curtailed and are speaking up about it. That kind of outrage can be inspiring to both artists and the public and I look forward to what kind of ballsy art emerges from it. Or at the very least, a rash of indie projects about short, fat, giant-ladies-sunglass-wearing dictators. And who knows—maybe in one of these he really will be played by James Franco?