Christmas is not a Jewish holiday, but my family observes it in the traditional American Jewish manner: By going to the movies, preferably preceded or followed by dinner at a Chinese restaurant.
Our plan for tomorrow includes dinner and a movie, after we visit some close Catholic friends to admire their tree and whip up a few Hanukkah latkes (potato pancakes) to share in the ecumenical spirit of the day.
Once the potato pancakes are consumed, we will mosey on down to my favorite multiplex, the Cinemark Palace in Boca Raton, Florida, where I had planned to take in Sony Pictures’ new comedy “The Interview.” This, however, is not going to happen. Cinemark was among the exhibitors that dropped its plans to screen “The Interview” on its Christmas Day release, after the gang that hacked Sony’s computer systems threatened terrorist attacks against any theater that dared to display this particular flick. Sony then canceled the movie’s theatrical release.
In other words, the world’s Grinch - North Korea’s hereditary dictator Kim Jong Un - just stole my Christmas.
Like his Dr. Seuss character role model, Kim lurks in his Pyongyang lair, trying to prevent Whos from celebrating Christmas. Usually those Whos are his fellow North Koreans, who have suffered through three generations of homicidal misrule by the Kim family. The only thing North Koreans are permitted to freely celebrate is their endless subjugation to the Kims.
So Kim Jong Un was understandably taken aback by the plotline of “The Interview,” in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play journalists who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean leader. It’s a crass storyline, and not one that Sony would ever have considered filming had the comedic target been, say, a leader from China - which is a huge movie market itself. Sony films don’t get any play in North Korea.
Writing a bad review or giving negative feedback on Netflix was not going to be enough to satisfy North Korea’s Supreme Leader. North Korea does not do many things well, but it has crude nuclear weapons, some commercial-quality long-range missiles and, apparently, genuinely world-class hacking skills. Sony was soon the target of a long-running, large-scale security breach that is estimated to have cost the company $200 million, or roughly four times what it cost to make “The Interview.”
The publicity surrounding the movie could let Sony recoup some of its losses, but that can only happen if people actually see the film. A Los Angeles premiere went off without incident, and some advance copies have made their way to critics. But last week’s New York opening was canceled, and after theater owners balked, Sony dropped its plans for wide release tomorrow.
The theaters were concerned about safety, which is understandable (though probably exaggerated) in light of the hackers’ invocation of 9/11. But they were also concerned about legal liability. This is a craziness that stems not from North Korea but from our own legal system. If theater owners are legitimately worried about being held financially responsible for murderous attacks on their own businesses and customers, then our courts and trial lawyers have handed a weapon of mass economic destruction to anyone who knows how to post an anonymous threat on the Internet.
“The Interview” might eventually get its theatrical release. More likely it will be seen on video streams, though we have to wonder whether big operators like Amazon, Apple and Netflix are ready to face near-certain cyberattack from Pyongyang’s gang in order to sell video views at $2.99 apiece.
Maybe “The Interview” will be the vehicle through which a studio tests its own direct-streaming distribution. This is a theater owner’s nightmare: The studios cutting out the middlemen entirely and encouraging audiences to stay home, enjoy their entertainment on big-screen high-def monitors, and eat their own non-overpriced snacks. While Cinemark and its peers will be aghast, they could hardly blame Sony for trying to recoup some of its investment on a film they themselves refused to exhibit.
I suspect there is already a sequel in the works. The plotline could be that the CIA sponsored a movie about the assassination of North Korea’s leader so it could uncover and study that country’s cyberwarfare capabilities. The strategy is hatched by a military historian who recalls how Japanese soldiers in World War II hollered insults about Babe Ruth (who became famous in Japan during 1930s barnstorming tours), because the Japanese believed American G.I.s would be enraged at the disrespect and would expose themselves in order to stop it. Once the North Koreans fall for the bait that the long-ago American soldiers avoided, our spooks infect every computing device in that country with “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
The goal: To show that even a Grinch can grow a heart that is not two sizes too small, and to give hope to the nation that needs it perhaps more than any other. That is a Christmas theme anybody can celebrate.
Have a joyous holiday, regardless of whether or how you observe it, and a very happy New Year.