Sony Bucks Pyongyang, Bags A Few Bucks

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 29 2014 @ 4:44pm

If the North Korean regime had hoped to stop anyone from seeing The Interview with its cyberattack on Sony and unsubstantiated terrorist threats, they didn’t quite pull it off. After initially deciding to pull the film, Sony backtracked and released it online on Christmas Eve. The Interview pulled in nearly $18 million over the holiday weekend, including $15 million online:

According to Sony, more than half the online revenue came from the Google Play Store and YouTube (both owned by Google), and after being limited to U.S. residents in its first few days, the online release was later expanded to Canada. Sony reports that the film has been downloaded or streamed more than 2 million times so far. The 331 theaters that screened the film generated significantly less revenue, with a reported $2.8 million in ticket sales. Many of the larger theater chains declined to screen the film due to Sony’s decision to make it available online on the same day as the theatrical release.

While that’s hardly a good take for a major Hollywood release (its total production costs were somewhere in the $100 million range), it sure beats the zero dollars it would have made had Sony capitulated and pulled the film entirely. Still, Ian Morris observes, the studio could have made more money had it not limited the digital release to the US and Canada:

According to various sites, BitTorrent downloads on public trackers were at nearly 1 million viewers after 24 hours. Those numbers exclude private trackers and places like newsgroups, IRC and “locker” based copies (those hosted on Dropbox or similar sites). Factor all those in, and it’s plausible that more people pirated the movie than paid. … Of course, you’ll never stop piracy, but blocking the film from being watched in other English-speaking countries is just foolish. Sony could, perhaps have doubled its money if it had allowed non-US residents to watch the film. And even if this had penalties with distributors, it feels like this might be the ideal time to try the model out anyway.

Todd VanDerWerff sees The Interview as “an important test of whether movies can now sustain themselves with day-and-date releases in theaters and at home”:

And though that $15 million weekend was undoubtedly boosted by curiosity seekers drawn by the controversy around the film, it’s still an incredibly impressive number. A Marvel superhero movie, which requires a much larger opening weekend than that, probably won’t be using day-and-date releases soon, but it stands as an increasingly viable alternative for smaller budget projects. … Of course, the big question in online releasing is how studios will balance the potential for money made there against the needs of movie theaters, which are still necessary to open big studio tentpole films, at least for the time being. And by so utterly outperforming theatrical sales with online sales, The Interview has also shown why theater owners are so worried.

So what, then, was Pyongyang’s game? Shortly before the holiday, Suki Kim advanced a compelling theory:

This scandal seems to be following the usual course designed by North Korean propagandists, where the more serious and consequential story gets buried behind the sensational headlines that benefit no one more than the North Korea regime. What is being overshadowed this time is the one thing Pyongyang desperately wants the world to ignore. The United Nations’ General Assembly recently voted, by an overwhelming majority of 116 to 20 (with 53 abstentions), to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, and the U.N. Security Council met on Monday and voted in favor of adding North Korea’s human rights issues to its agenda over the objection of China and Russia. … I am not sure how much Kim Jong-un really cares about being facetiously killed by actors in a Hollywood comedy, but it appears that he doesn’t want to have an arrest warrant issued against him by an international court the crimes against humanity.

Sony’s last-minute decision to release the film after all should give some comfort to Flemming Rose, who had linked the initial decision to pull the movie to the worldwide trend of “grievance fundamentalism” (a subject the Dish knows all too well):

In today’s grievance culture, with its identity politics and cultivation of the victim, the grievance lobby has succeeded in shifting the fulcrum of the human rights debate from freedom of speech to the necessity of countering hate speech; from the individual pursuing individual liberties to the individual being aggrieved by the liberties taken by others. That shift becomes counterintuitive, the logic increasingly absurd. Those aggrieved by free speech are defended, while others whose speech is perceived as offensive to such a degree that they are exposed to death threats, physical assault, and sometimes even murder are deemed to have been asking for it: “What did they expect offending people like that?”

Thus, perpetrators are transformed into victims, victims into perpetrators, and it’s impossible to know the difference. The distinction between critical words and violent actions, between a picture and a violent reaction, between tolerance and intolerance, between civilization and barbarism is being dissolved.