Will 'chilling effect' of Sony mess dissipate now? – USA TODAY

Talk about Hollywood in turnaround: What just happened in the Sony/hack-attack/The Interview saga?

Last week, Sony’s assassination comedy was DOA. On Tuesday, it was being hailed as an emblem of American values.

A silly movie about a cockamamie plot to assassinate a real person, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, has been transformed into an art-house movie you have to see as a matter of patriotic duty.

“The movie is a Seth Rogen, James Franco comedy, but it’s clearly become much more than that: It’s become a symbol of freedom of expression. And not backing down.”

So says Tim League, founder and CEO of the indie-art-house Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, one of the theaters where The Interview will open on Christmas Day after all. He’s not only seen the movie, he says he loved it.

“It’s strange and subversive. And oddly violent,” he says. “The guy who plays Kim Jong Un is fantastic. He kind of steals the show with his performance. It’s silly, dumb. Not everyone can truly get into and love a comedy like this.”

But maybe some damage to free expression is already apparent, say some experts.

The “chilling effect” on Hollywood may not be permanent but it’s not likely to warm up real soon, says Ken Paulson, mass-communication dean at Middle Tennessee State University, head of the First Amendment Center and a former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY.

“Who’s going to invest millions in a film that offends nations or organizations with the means and motive to inflict harm on a company,” he says. “We may well see films depict foreign dictators but they’ll be living in fictional countries.That’s a shame. Major corporations will play it safe; in all likelihood, people will pull their punches.”

Try to keep up: Last week, following vague online threats from hackers, believed to be controlled by North Korea, to cause September 11-style violence on any theater showing the movie, major theater chains balked and Sony decided to shelve it.

This was followed by heaping helpings of scorn from…well, everybody. Now Sony has reversed itself and revived the film, sending it into a few hundred independent theaters for a limited opening on Christmas. Originally, it was to play in some 3,000 theaters across the country.

Hurray! responded…well, everybody, especially Rogen and Franco, who tweeted their delight.

The people have spoken! Freedom has prevailed! Sony didn’t give up! The Interview will be shown at theaters willing to play it on Xmas day!

— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) December 23, 2014

VICTORY!!!!!!!
The PEOPLE and THE PRESIDENT have spoken!!!
SONY to release THE INTERVIEW in theaters… http://t.co/0KyZQAB6cf

— James Franco (@JamesFrancoTV) December 23, 2014

Even President Obama, who led the chorus of chiding that enveloped Sony last week, applauded the beleaguered studio, via spokesman Eric Schultz:

“As the president made clear, we are a country that believes in free speech, and the right of artistic expression. The decision made by Sony and participating theaters allows people to make their own choices about the film, and we welcome that outcome.”

You may be wondering: After the box-office fallout, the public-relations fallout, the legal fallout, and now, after such a head-snapping change in direction, who’s writing up their resignation letters at Sony today?

But the more consequential questions are: What effect will this debacle have on free speech and self-censorship in the entertainment industry? What effect will it have on art and commerce, technology and security?

And what happens the next time a wacko-bird dictator threatens America with mayhem over a movie? Because there will be a next time.

It’s not new that art in America has been subjected to boycotts and controversies over the years. Recall what happened when the Dixie Chicks said some critical things about President Bush during a concert and country-music stations refused to play their music in response.

“But their records were still available,” says Paulson. “What’s so disturbing about this is that a combination of hacking and vague threats could totally bury a film. That’s a huge leap…(Sony’s initial decision not to release) was based on fear, and that did set this apart.”

James McQuivey, principal analyst at Forrester Research and author of Digital Disruption, argues in a blog post that companies should fight back against cyber warriors, and Sony (finally) did the right thing.

“Yes, it will be a multimillion-dollar loss for Sony, at least for now,” he wrote. “But it will be a massive victory for Sony, for free speech and for digital disruption. It will tell the hackers that companies will not shrink in the face of cyber war, that they are not content to merely play defense but can go on the offensive.”

Meanwhile, it’s all looking good for The Interview and for filmmaker/star Seth Rogen. His piffle of a movie has a different profile, thanks to inadvertent word-of-mouth marketing.

“There’s a certain demographic that it would not have reached that is now going to go (see it),” says Jeff Bock, box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “Everyone is talking about it. Those theaters (showing it) are going to have a great per-theater average. But whether the masses go, that’s still the big story.”

Silver linings, says Paulson.

“Americans overwhelmingly were outraged by the Sony decision and asserted the value of freedom of art,” he says. ” Many people with no interest in the film are thoroughly engaged on it (now)…

“Ours is a vibrant and very free country; art generally breaks through.”

Contributing: Bryan Alexander, Andrea Mandell

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