Posted on Sat, 20 Dec 2014 16:39:00 GMT
Seth Rogen fans may want to thank President Barack Obama this weekend.
When Obama called Sony's decision to cancel Rogen's movie, "The Interview," "a mistake" at his year-end news conference on Friday, he may have guaranteed the movie will leave the studio's vault.
Almost immediately after Obama's remarks, some industry experts speculated the president's strongly-worded comments would get Sony to reverse its decision to pull the comedy about North Korea.
The movie studio called off "The Interview's" scheduled Dec. 25 opening on Wednesday following a massive cyber hack that included several Sony films leaking, the release of internal emails, employees' data, and threats of terrorist attacks against theaters that played the movie.
Along with the leaked documents the hackers released statements saying they objected to the way "The Interview" mocks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Both Obama and the FBI have said there is evidence linking the attack to North Korea.
In his press conference, Obama slammed Sony for setting a bad precedent with their decision to cancel the movie.
"We cannot have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States," the president said, later adding, "I wish they had spoken to me first. I would have told them do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks."
Right after Obama spoke, David Poland of the Hollywood industry blog Movie City News predicted the president's statement would force Sony to make a reversal.
"Obama calling the pulling of 'The Interview' 'a mistake' pretty much assures a release," Poland wrote on Twitter. "Though Christmas Day might be too soon functionally."
Brent Lang, the senior film and media reporter with Hollywood trade magazine Variety, told Business Insider he agreed Obama "definitely" had an impact on the studio.
"How could he not have? He's the president," said Lang. "That's terrible publicity for Sony. He basically called them out on television, the president of the United States."
In the wake of Obama's comments, Lang said he believes there's a "better than 50% chance they'll release the film."
"I don't think it's going to come out on Dec. 25 like it was supposed to. They've now started to pull their television and their other ads," Lang explained. "But at some point, in some way, people will see this movie."
Indeed, following the president's remarks, Sony Entertainment CEO and Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton issued a pair of statements wherein he seemed to back track from a vow the studio made on Wednesday that it had "no further" plans to release the movie in any format. Lynton's response to Obama also seemed to blame the decision on movie theater chains that declined to show the film after the hackers made terrorist threats.
"Let us be clear – the only decision that we have made with respect to release of the film was not to release it on Christmas Day in theaters, after the theater owners declined to show it," said Lynton. "Without theaters, we could not release it in the theaters on Christmas Day. We had no choice."
Along with the pressure from Obama, Lang attributed Sony's apparent reversal to massive backlash from other critics like the actors George Clooney and Rob Lowe who were outraged by the studio's decision to pull the movie. Lang said the anger over the studio's decision was amplified when the government confirmed the hack was linked to North Korea.
"It subsequently sort of came to light who was behind the hack and I think it became more of an issue about free speech than maybe Sony even realized it was going to become. So, now they're facing a lot of blowback that maybe they didn't anticipate," Lang said. "They really, as a studio, they don't want to be in a position where they're on the side of censorship."
Lang attributed Sony's seemingly shifting plans for the film to watching them "trying to figure out a situation in real time."
"They are sort of changing their mind in real time because it's such an unprecedented situation. There's not really like a crisis management script they can refer to. It's so beyond what an entertainment company normally deals with," said Lang. "They didn't anticipate the vitriolic response that they received and now theyre trying to salvage what they can of their brand and what it stands for."
Even though Sony appears to be backing down from the decision to cancel "The Interview," not everyone believes critics, even the president, played a defining role.
Jeff Sneider, a film reporter at Hollywood industry website The Wrap, told Business Insider he doesn't think Sony ever really planned to shelve "The Interview."
"It was always going to come out eventually, one day, in some form or another," Sneider said. "I don't think Obama ensured its release any more than Clooney did."
Sneider said he believes Sony was merely was merely buying time to allow for an investigation of the matter. He also theorized the studio was loathe to risk an attack on a theater, which after the specific threats made by the hackers, could result in tremendous legal liability.
"To think this movie will never be released is naive. It will definitely come out and it will definitely be in 2015. They've got to give the government time to investigate and catch these bastards," said Sneider. "It was wise to take a time out and pull the movie. It was the only thing they could do. Why take the risk of something happening. It's not worth it!"
Sneider also predicted the publicity from the hack will make "The Interview" a success, whether in theaters or in a video on demand format.
"The publicity will help the box office performance if they opt for a theatrical release," Sneider said. "It may very well go VOD and that'd be the end of it, but I predict it would be the most successful VOD release of all-time."
For his part, Lang thinks Sony genuinely considered pulling the movie. He argued that strategy is based on the studio's bottom line. Lang, who broke the news the cancellation would leave Sony with a loss of about $75 million in costs associated with the film, suggested Sony executives may have felt they could recoup more through their insurance policies than a VOD release.
"From my understanding they could probably have made about half of their production back through insurance or terror coverage," Lang explained. "I think the high watermark for VOD is like $20 million. This would probably have been the biggest VOD title of all time just given the awareness around it, but ... by the time you cut in the cable operator, whoever it is who's distributing it, you're not going to make the money back. It's just not feasible. So, they probably took a look at those numbers and figured insurance was the better way to go."
Lang also noted "The Interview" wasn't a big budget blockbuster, Oscar contender, or major franchise.
"At a certain point, they can't stand to lose more money and risk the security of their employees and stuff just to release this comedy, which is a fairly small movie. This isn't 'Interstellar,'" said Lang. "It's a fairly small movie to begin with and the damages associated with this are so dispropritonate to the cost of this film and its revenues. I mean this is a company."
However, those calculations may have changed for Sony due to the pressure from the president and other critics along with the ensuing public relations damage.
Still, though the film now has a ton of free publicity, Lang doesn't think it will be a moneymaker for the studio — even if the theater chains have a change of heart that lets Sony can give the movie a traditional release rather than an on demand one.
Lang pointed out the studio's losses from this hack were not confined to the costs associated with "The Interview." The leaked personal information led to legal woes and the publication of internal emails could have caused intrapersonal drama that might pose issues for other future projects, among other complications associated with the attack.
"'The Interview' could be phenomenally successful, but it's doubtful that it will be successful enough to make up for all the lost revenue, for all the lost operations, the cost in legal liabilities, the cost in repairing their cybersecurity network, and the cost in repairing their brand damage," Lang said. "So, even if the film is succsessful, it won't be successful, basically."
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