On the Sony hack, and the future of film

The Sony hack is interesting to me on a lot of levels. One, because mine was a Sony family. My dad kept our Betamax alive until I was in university. In fact, we still have two at home — my boyfriend at the time bought us another so dad could complete his editorial projects, like mashing together a perfect cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that included both the Gobi Desert sequence and both endings.

Yeah. We were that family.

Second, the hack has provided a revealing glimpse at how the Hollywood development process works. That should interest anyone who loves film, and anyone who one day hopes to have their work optioned. The lesson? William Goldman was right. It’s a miracle anything gets developed at all. If a deal falls through, don’t blame yourself.

Third, the precedent set by the hack — and by Sony’s response to it — is troubling. It’s art held hostage. It’s a threat to freedom of expression, and therefore, American values. It’s beyond the realm of stupid, because it’s highly unlikely that a group of hackers could follow through on their terrorist-style threats. Moreover, it’s complete hypocrisy for the mainstream American media to suddenly feel terrorized now, when women have been dealing with these threats for years.

But this was also a classic Sony decision. Remember that Betamax? Even though the Betamax cassette format was ideal for home movie viewing, the company refused to release the license to its competitors, and died a slow painful death in the home video market. They sat on Blu-Ray technology for five years before retailing it, and longer before incuding it in a gaming system. Historically, the company has always created something beautiful, and then done everything possible to make it unusable. (Have you tried to rent a movie on the PlayStation Network, lately? Have you ever done a user interface map of that process? Try it, sometime.)

But was pulling The Interview (which by all accounts is awful) the right decision? Sure. Why? Because it’s wrong to expect the ticket takers and ushers and popcorn hustlers of America to come to work when there’s a bomb threat. Because those people — hourly, minimum wage workers in itchy polyester vests and streak-free shoes, people who are home from school and picking up shifts on winter break, people who are working a second or third job so they can have a Christmas this year — are the ones who get fired for not showing up. Even if the threat is bullshit. Even if nothing happens. You don’t show up? You’re not needed. Hang up your vest. Hand in your nametag. You want terror? Try supporting a family on $7.25 an hour. It’s rare for a major corporation to land on the side of the worker. In this case, it was probably inadvertent and unintentional. But I’m pretty sure there are some people handing out 3D glasses today who are breathing a little easier, all the same.

What was stupid, though, was not releasing the film online. Sony had a golden opportunity to do some old-fashioned William Castle-style marketing, here. See the film North Korea doesn’t want you to see! If you don’t watch our film, you’re letting the terrorists win! Christ, they could have hosted a screening on the National Mall. They could have streamed it through ACLU websites. They could have pushed for screening parties in homes, to raise money for charities that protect freedom of speech. They could have flipped the script, taken control of the story, and made this whole thing about bravery and not cowardice.

Not that I have a degree in strategy, or anything. Ahem.

But now we’re left with this precedent, where a small group of tech-savvy people are dictating what people can watch, as though the ghost of William Harrison Hays had returned to punish American movie audiences for their wickedness. So let’s look at some possibilities in this new landscape.

  • Tea Party hackers can now keep films about abortion, gay marriage, interracial relationships, trans teens, and the tragedy of gun violence out of American cinemas.
  • “Men’s Rights Activists” can keep documentaries about campus rape, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and the harassment of, say, female game designers off Netflix.
  • Major corporations can forestall the development of films and stories contrary to their brand identity. Have you just decided to produce the next Roger & Me or Supersize Me or Blackfish? Not any more!
  • The Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Brotherhood can find the addresses of people working on films about the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, or Renisha McBride, and threaten set fire to their homes. Or kidnap them. Or lynch them. Unless the film stays in the can.

This is the world we live in. It’s the world we’ve been living in for some time, but it apparently took a terrible Franco/Rogen vehicle to make us realize it.

In 2010, I worked on a year-long foresight study about the future of media. Never once did we consider an event like this. This is the limit of foresight — it can often miss “black swan” or “wild card” events that have the potential to change the game. But it’s also the limit of theory-of-mind, because I can honestly say that none of the experts we consulted ever imagined that any major studio could possibly be this stupid.

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