They protested in the streets, with picket signs and shouts of anger: They wanted to stop the show. It was hateful and demeaning, they said, an insult to their community.
This was in Toronto not too long ago, and if moviegoers were outraged this week by Sony Pictures yanking Seth Rogen's comedy The Interview because of vague terror threats, they surely shouldn't have been surprised by North Korea being upset about the movie.
Regular people, not just Hermit Kingdom despots, try to ban art all the time.
In 1993 members of Toronto's black community were up in arms over a revival of the Broadway musical Show Boat: they said it was inherently racist. A couple of years earlier, a group of parents in Saint John tried to get To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn removed from school reading lists. In 2003, the founder of Vancouver's Kidsbooks asked the publisher of A Little Piece of Ground, a novel about a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, to scrap the book.
And just last year, critics of Jane Fonda called for a boycott of Lee Daniels' The Butler, in which she played Nancy Reagan – though, to be fair, that was because they hate Ms. Fonda, no matter what she does.
In the case of the Show Boat flap, a few wise people noted that theatre, being a living art form, is uniquely able to adjust for the times, with script edits and sharply different character interpretations from one production to another. Lincoln Alexander, the former lieutenant-governor of Ontario, said during the controversy that he would reserve all judgment until opening night. "Why boycott it?" he told The Globe. "How can I judge something if I don't go and see it?"
It's too bad Kim Jong-un didn't ask to set up a private screening of The Interview before siccing his hackers on Sony, as he seems to have done. He might have enjoyed it. Who could object, after all, to being depicted the way he is in the movie's final trailer – as a lovable cigar-smoking lad with a soft spot for Katy Perry tunes?
True, he probably doesn't have much of a sense of humour, never mind a sense of irony. But then, neither do many of the otherwise reasonable people – that is, our neighbours and, sometimes, ourselves – who think they have a legitimate right to prevent others from experiencing a profound work of literature, a classic Broadway musical, or even a forgettable buddy comedy set in North Korea.
When Sony announced it was pulling the movie on Wednesday, journalists and Hollywood stars and regular folk with a Twitter trigger finger quickly denounced the move as cowardly. Really, America? They said as one. You're scared of that kimchi-eating portly goofball? Rob Lowe tweeted: "Hollywood has done Neville Chamberlain proud today."
But it's not that simple. In fact, maybe the real villain isn't North Korea but the litigiousness of American society.
That's because, having received a threat whose credibility could not be wholly dismissed, the U.S. cinema chains (and the Canadian ones, too) had their hands all but tied. If they evacuate a theatre when some random nut calls in with a single bomb threat, as they do on occasion, nobody questions the decision. Indeed, in our itchy post-Sept. 11 world, many people warn darkly that you can never be too careful. (Here's looking at you, fear-mongering TV pundits.) That's why we all have to go in stocking feet through the body-scanning machines at the airport.
Why, then, was this week's threat any less serious?
If, in screening The Interview, a theatre had ended up suffering a terror attack that resulted in a moviegoer being injured or killed, the chains know they would likely be held liable. After all, they had received information suggesting that such an attack was likely: It was pure Hollywood greed that led them to disregard such a threat, and screen the movie. At least, that's what personal injury lawyers, eyeing contingency fees potentially worth tens of millions of dollars, would argue.
Meanwhile, the potential upside for the theatres was minimal, especially during a season when they can pick and choose from a glut of movies to fill their auditoriums. The Interview was probably going to do middling box office in North America, anyway – maybe $50-million or $60-million, only half of which the movie theatres would keep. (The rest would go to Sony.)
On Wednesday, the head of a small Canadian theatre chain noted that, in an exhibition landscape of multiplexes, where there are few or no standalone screens left, even that money would likely be made at the expense of other movies.
"If we had single-screen theatres, I would play it in a second," said Tom Hutchinson, the owner of the Magic Lantern Theatre and Rainbow Cinemas chain, who explained he would have been happy to beef up on security.
But, he added, "if we have Disney movies, and other sorts of family entertainment, how many families are going to want to bring their two-, three-, four-year-old children to a cinema that's showing a movie [that's been threatened]?" Who, in other words, wants to have their kid frisked on the way to a matinee of Big Hero 6?
He added: "Do I think that perhaps one lone, computer-smart nut should be able to dictate what happens in the world? Of course I don't. But do I care about what my customers are experiencing in the other eight, 10, 12 auditoriums? Of course I do. So, that's the problem."
After film is cancelled, controversy erupts
North Korea has denied it was behind the hacking into the computer systems on Sony Pictures that led the besieged company to cancel the Christmas Day release of the North Korean spoof comedy, The Interview. Hackers, who call themselves Guardians of Peace, made threats of violence reminiscent of Sept. 11, 2001, if movie theatres showed the film.
In New York on Thursday, a senior North Korean diplomat at the United Nations declined comment on accusations that Pyongyang was responsible and on the film's cancellation.
The United States said on Thursday the cyberattack on Sony was a serious national security matter and the Obama administration was considering a proportional response, although the White House stopped short of blaming North Korea.
U.S. government sources said on Wednesday that investigators had determined the attack was "state sponsored" and that North Korea was the government involved. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that President Barack Obama was monitoring very closely.
The unprecedented hack of Sony Pictures may be the most damaging cyberattack – and the costliest one – ever inflicted on an American business. The studio's reputation is in tatters as embarrassing revelations spill from tens of thousands of leaked e-mails and other company materials.
"This attack went to the heart and core of Sony's business and succeeded," said Avivah Litan, a cybersecurity analyst at research firm Gartner. "We haven't seen any attack like this in the annals of U.S. breach history."
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the U.S. government had no involvement in Sony's decision to cancel The Interview. She said artists and entertainers have the right to produce and distribute whatever content they want in the United States.
John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, called Sony's decision a "troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future."
The detective work blaming North Korea for the Sony hacker break-in appears so far to be largely circumstantial, The Associated Press has learned. Investigators looked at subtle clues in the hacking tools left behind and the involvement of at least one computer in Bolivia previously traced to other attacks blamed on the North Koreans.
The hackers are believed to have been conducting surveillance on the network at Sony Pictures since at least the spring, based on computer forensic evidence and traffic analysis, a person with knowledge of the investigation said.
Civil-rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton on Thursday did not call for co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment Amy Pascal to step down over racially insensitive e-mails, despite expectations that he might seek her resignation.
The private e-mails, leaked through a massive hacking attack, included joking remarks related to U.S. President Barack Obama and his taste in movies. Ms. Pascal, who has publicly apologized, met with Mr. Sharpton Thursday to discuss the e-mails and perceived racial bias in the film industry.