Friday, December 19, 2014

North Korea Now Runs Hollywood

The Sony Pictures hacking and shut-down of the release of The Interview is the first truly successful cyber-attack-- and one of the most remarkable events in media history.

This is not the first time this has happened: In 1976, an extremist group staged an attack in Washington, DC to prevent the release of Mohammad: Messenger of God. They believed (without having seen the film) that Anthony Quinn was playing The Prophet on-screen, a depiction forbidden by Islamic law. He wasn't, of course-- but the premiere got pulled and the movie never recovered.

As a cyber-attack, the timing and roll-out was breathtakingly effective. They got into Sony's system via stolen admin passwords, pulled out every juicy document and let Gawker and TMZ do the rest. Only after the damage was done did the hackers state their intentions: Cancel The Interview, or else. Distributors freaked out and cancelled bookings: Sony was so demoralized by then they just went ahead and pulled it. I would not be surprised that we find out later that there were direct extortion attempts between the hackers and Sony execs even before the leaks started.

All you see of Mohammad in this film
is the end of his camel-driving stick.
This is one long bad event for everyone it has touched: Bad for Sony Pictures and everyone mentioned in every catty email. Bad for Hollywood in general. Bad for free speech. Bad for the US government, which needs to create a proportional response to this attack. It's even bad for North Korea, who did the goddamned thing in the first place-- and will catch hell for it. Point-to-point:

• The behavior of Sony Pictures in this whole episode has been nothing short of completely typical Hollywood: Fearful, herd-following and craven. Obama himself said canceling the release of The Interview was a mistake. Craven-- but not out of character.

The Interview is now fully and officially buried: All press materials and trailers have been withdrawn from public access. The hackers got everything they asked for, and then some. People are calling Sony spineless for caving to an unseen, unknown hacker threat, but really I see no deviation from how Hollywood usually works. As an example, it came to light today that Paramount has ordered the next Star Trek movie reworked to be more like, you know, Guardians of the Galaxy. Yikes.

The socialist-realist style poster for The Interview.
In a perfect world, a world where the brave people stand courageously for their principles (like most of the characters in the comic book movies that are keeping the lights on in most Hollywood studios) Sony would have told the hackers to fuck off, and seen-- as most of us can conclude-- that the threats to moviegoers had no real credibility, and released the film. But even if these feckless execs grew spines, the movie was doomed: Sony does not control distribution. Theater chains have everything to lose and nothing to gain if something bad happens during a screening of The Interview. Imagine if it actually got released-- it would be a field day for every lone dumbshit out there to call in a bomb threat for the sheer fun of it.

• Seth Rogen and James Franco are going to lose most of their shot-calling power for this. They'll still be in movies, but I sincerely doubt if they will have any juice to get anything greenlighted for quite a long time, if ever. All this over a film that early reviews and pre-release reviews called a mediocre and unfunny comedy. It's a shame-- not because they're amazing, magical talents (they aren't) but because the movie that will stunt their careers was so inconsequential.

• This is all and entirely North Korea's doing (maybe with the help of some paid proxies in China, which has experience in such things). But: why do this? Why risk an international incident and retaliation over some dumb comedy with weak prospects? There are two possible reasons:

Scene from The Interview where Kim Jong-un
(Randall Park) gets immolated. quite the laugh riot, no?
1. Western media is easier to access in North Korea than ever. Which means that it is quite possible for the wretched masses toiling under the ruling regime to get a chance to see this film-- a comic take on the assassination of Kim Jong-un. If this regime is in a vulnerable state, even something as frivolous as The Interview could upset the fragile ruling junta.

2. Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea who is the target of assassination in this film, is a movie buff. In his youth he would sneak into Japan to go to Disneyland. He knows how powerful movies can be-- and he probably took this film as a sort of personal betrayal.

But why would a sovereign nation even bother to instigate a hack on a private company to specifically force a lame-looking comedy film to go dark?  Because Kim Jong-un isn't Hitler or Stalin or even Mao: He's Tony Soprano. As the late Christopher Hitchens observed, North Korea is run by a "militarized crime family that completely owns both the country and its people." Extortion isn't what nations tend to do-- but it is exactly what gangsters do.

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