A Chilling “Interview”

The threats that scuttled the James Franco-Seth Rogen comedy present a serious threat to filmmakers.

If someone ever makes a movie about the possible permanent freezing out of "The Interview" from theaters amid terror threats, an appropriate title would be "The Big Chill."

Sure, the name's been used before, but it fits: Sony Pictures' decision to cancel the Christmas release of the comedy about assassinating Kim Jung-un after major exhibitors balked represents a frigid, ill wind from the North that’s destined to linger in Hollywood and beyond for years to come.

The reaction to the terror threats that uprooted the James Franco-Seth Rogen comedy about the North Korean strongman presents a serious threat to filmmakers — and moviegoers.

Studios likely will steer even further away from movies that might offend — perhaps films with far more to say than escapist fluff from the affable duo who puffed their way through "Pineapple Express." Even more troubling, some moviemakers no doubt will censor themselves, knowing that edgy films risk a tepid reception from big studios, potentially impacting documentaries as much as popcorn flicks.

Left in the cold will be audiences, robbed of fare that might make them think, or in the case of "The Interview," make them laugh at the absurdity of a certain basketball-loving, dangerous dictator.

The flap, at first blush, invites comparisons to the protests against Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988 and Monty Python's "Life of Brian" in 1979. But those films, which affronted some religious sensibilities, spurred demonstrations and boycott threats — not cyber attacks or vows of widespread physical attacks on moviegoers.

"The Interview" mess is unspooling more like as an extension of the violence waged over cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad, which inspired a memorable "South Park" two-part episode in 2010 that lambasted censorship even while ultimately bowing to it. Comedy Central bleeped and obscured any references to Muhammad, helping “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker make their point. The duo, it’s worth noting, created the bawdy 2004 puppet flick “Team America: World Police,” which mercilessly mocked Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, with a minimum of controversy.

Censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, isn’t the hallmark of a democratic society. In this age of exported terror, the threats sparked by “The Interview” prompted understandable concerns, if unfortunate actions, by movie exhibitors and Sony, which now has a much bigger problem on its corporate hands than an embarrassing and potentially financially harmful computer hacking and leaking. Major filmmakers could wind up taking projects to other studios. 

Rob Lowe, who appears in “The Interview,” likened Hollywood in a tweet Wednesday to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany proved one of the last century's major disasters. Lowe’s passion-driven hyperbole aside, Sony’s at least temporary shuttering of “The Interview” opens the door to more cranks and real terror mongers now emboldened to target movies and media they don’t like with threats.

The studio could just suck up its losses and give audiences a present by simply putting "The Interview" online on Christmas Day — foiling the film's foes and making a defiant statement in the face of intimidation. There also would be some poetic justice in Sony responding to a leak with a leak of its own.

Giving away “The Interview” would ensure a wide audience gets to see a movie that, under other circumstances, might have just faded away as another goofy comedy. Either way, "The Interview," is destined to become the symbol of an insidious chilling effect that won’t blow over anytime soon. 

Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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