Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Kim and Sony

I suppose it is time for me to comment on the Sony Pictures hacking scandal. Now, before I begin, I must say that I have worked on many projects at Sony, and I have long regarded their executive team as one of the best and brightest in the studio system. For me, SPE is a kind of second home in the film business. In particular, Amy Pascal, the co-CEO, whom I have known for some twenty years, has become a good friend. I consider her to be among the most honorable, intelligent, sincere, honest and supportive executives in the industry, and her friendship is among the proudest possessions of my career.

Now to hear her pilloried in the press by people who cannot even pronounce her name properly is painful to me. On the strength of a few casual, joking remarks about the President's taste in films, she has been branded a racist. This accusation is obscene. Amy Pascal has given more opportunities and breaks to people of color than anyone I know in the business. There is not a racist instinct in her being. But such is the reflexive venom and vulture-like mercilessness of the cable news cycle.

To my mind there are two principal questions that arise out of the hacking scandal. The first is: Why was The Interview made in the first place? It appears to be a silly, shallow comedy, scarcely worth local attention, let alone international debate. Now I am aware, perhaps more than most, that the studios routinely crank out such glossy insignificance. But why, through the years-long production process, did no one say: Change the dictator's name. We all would have known who was being referred to, and the whole mess might have been avoided.

The answer is a phenomenon I have often observed in Hollywood: Once a film is green-lighted and goes into production, no one asks any of the fundamental questions anymore. There is simply too much at stake: millions of dollars, hundreds of jobs, dozens of careers. So if anyone (like me, for instance - I am famous for it), dares to raise a basic question, such as: Is this necessary? Does this make sense? Is it any good? Isn't it stupid or dangerous? he or she (usually me) is simply fired. Once the giant engine of production is set in motion, no one is allowed to derail it with even a hint of logic. Now, we all know that, like the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, the government of North Korea has no sense of humor. And yet no one at Sony appears to have said: Won't making this film have serious political repercussions? It simply reinforces a point I have long argued -- that if any other business were run like the film business, it would be out of business.

The second question that arises is: Why did Sony decide to pull the film? I thought at the time, and I still think, that the correct course would have been to put the film into as wide a release as possible, challenging the public to rally to it as an affirmation of the power of free speech, even if it meant charging a buck for admission. That the public would have responded appears to be proved by the fact that The Interview has made fifteen million in its secretive, selective release. People seem to want to see it precisely because the North Koreans have threatened reprisals (though there is absolutely no evidence that the hackers are capable of carrying out such violence).

The Interview might thus have been transformed from an embarrassment into a cause célèbre, a rallying point for those of us who refuse to be intimidated by bullies and tyrants. Instead, Sony compounded the fiasco by seeming to cave in to pressure from, of all places, Pyongyang. This craven capitulation before thuggishness sets a very dangerous precedent that goes beyond Sony and even the film business: it represents nothing less than an abandonment of faith in the principle of free speech in face of official intimidation.

And so I think that Sony's decision not to release the film, based on the apparent unwillingness of theater chains to distribute it, was a serious mistake, but a fairly typical response of institutional self-preservation. When push comes to shove, protect the institution. This, to my thinking, reveals a deeper fault than even the hackers could have exposed; namely, that the instinct of any corporate body in the face of moral crisis is not courage but fear; not self-examination but self-defense.

This is the same reflex that was exhibited by the Catholic Church and Penn State in response to their child sex abuse scandals, and it is always self-destructive. What Sony really needs to learn from this experience, it seems to me, is not how to revamp its technology, but how to revive its corporate courage.