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Why Sony Pictures should release The Interview online

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Not even North Korea can stop the internet

After the publishing of this article, all major US movie theater chains announced they would not be showing The Interview. The internet is not just the best option - now it’s the only one.

The dominoes fell swiftly Tuesday. The group behind the massive Sony hacks released another cache of confidential information, threatening violence against movie theaters that dare play the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview. Soon both actors canceled the rest of their promotional appearances for the film, and Sony told theater chains that it "wouldn’t object" if they chose to drop the film due to safety concerns. Carmike Cinemas was the first company to take Sony up on its offer, with Landmark Theatres calling off the movie’s New York premiere hours later.

As an event, it’s unprecedented: a cyberattack has rocked a major corporation in the most public of ways, and is now dictating the release of a major motion picture in the United States. And yet the studio still has one card tucked in its back pocket.

Sony should release The Interview online. Right now.

Threats of violence can't be taken lightly by theater owners

Almost from the beginning the hacks have been about stopping people from seeing the movie. It’s such a bizarre tactic that if the stakes were lower you’d almost think it was an elaborate PR stunt — the kind of thing that would fit right in with a story about a TV personality recruited to kill the leader of North Korea. But threats of physical violence can’t be taken lightly, not by theater owners worried about legal liabilities nor by Sony Pictures itself. This is a post-9/11, post-Aurora America, and frankly a movie premiere being attacked doesn’t sound all that implausible. So while it’s tempting to flip a jingoistic middle finger and chant "We won’t let the terrorists win!" the realities of huge corporations looking out for their own best interests is another matter.

Does it smack of censorship and impinging of free speech? Absolutely — though what it feels like most is the conservative choice. Hollywood loves a safe bet, and Sony making the passive move to let theaters opt out at their leisure is as safe as it gets, no matter what creative voices get stifled. Of course, the film industry has always been more about business than it has been about creative expression anyway, and in that sense The Interview can simply be framed as fallout from a bad business decision: Sony Pictures decided to make a movie about killing a real-world dictator, and is suffering immeasurably as a result.

the interview still

Every living room, computer, and phone can be a movie theater

But it’s foolish for anybody — even the hackers themselves — to think that The Interview will simply disappear, or that a movie’s life begins and ends at your local multiplex. Things leak. They spread. A version of Kim Jong-un’s death scene is already out in the wild. So what Sony should really do is take the game online. Throw the movie up on iTunes and Amazon. Get crazy and give Crackle a shot. Take the threat of attacking theaters and diffuse it with the truth that the hackers don’t seem to understand: we live in a world where every living room, every computer, and every phone is a theater. And whether it’s leaked government documents or a goofy comedy from the Neighbors guy, nothing stays hidden for long.

Would it open Sony up to having additional emails leaked? Would it open up content providers to potentially adding their names to the hackers' hitlist? Potentially, and we certainly don’t know what other personal threats have been made directly to the heads of Sony Pictures. But anyone expecting the leaks to stop at this point hasn’t been paying attention, and as long as the movie is kept under wraps there’s that dangling, implied threat: don’t show it or else. Releasing the movie online would allow the company to take a principled stand against its attackers and shatter that tension.

Releasing it for free would bring a bonanza of good will

Releasing it for free would bring a bonanza of good will at a time when the studio needs it, but charging could be an even stronger choice, serving as a bold experiment in day-and-date video-on-demand releases. For years studios, theaters, and VOD services have butted heads over narrowing theatrical windows and release strategies: theaters want to have movies longer, while studios want to start collecting that VOD money as soon as possible. With many theaters already dropping out, why not take the most dangerous studio movie in the world and let audiences decide what they prefer? Make it a premium rental, even; I’d certainly pony up to see The Interview from the comfort of my home, even if it just turns out to be the goofy bro-com it appears to be.

This is a scenario unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and Sony Pictures is at a unique point in history. As theater chain stocks dipped Tuesday, the hacks began to look more like true economic terrorism — impacting an entire industry, not just a lone company. TV shows and movies will undoubtedly stay away from portraying North Korea in a negative light moving forward, the chilling effect that this kind of strong-arming leads to. And what happens between now and Christmas Day, when the film is (still) scheduled for release, will establish a precedent that sets the tone for years to come.

The hackers, whomever they may be, have used the internet to attack Sony Pictures. They’ve used it to intimidate Sony Pictures. Now Sony can use that same internet to fight back and spread The Interview across the world.

Put it online.