‘The Interview’ may be the future of cinema

It’s almost as if the entire Sony episode was planned, as if this was just a piece of diabolically brilliant movie promotion, writes Rob Long

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It was the night before Christmas in the United States, and I had several presents left to wrap. Thanks to my niece and nephew – both of them youngsters under the age of 10 – I also had a few complicated gifts with power issues to handle, like obscurely-sized batteries to locate and USB cables to hook up.

In other words, exactly when I should have been focused on the duties of a childless uncle – and make no mistake, children expect better gifts from an uncle with no children of his own to think about – I am instead sitting on the floor, mesmerised by the streaming download version of The Interview, the Sony Pictures comedy that has caused worldwide controversy.

A brief recap, for anyone who hasn’t followed this story for the past few weeks. And just to be clear, that’s impossible for anyone in Hollywood to fathom. We’ve been thinking and talking about nothing else since the story broke. Sony Pictures Entertainment produced and was planning to release a raucous and rude comedy, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco (both of whom have appeared in idiotic – but hilarious and successful – comedies together) about two American journalists who are somehow roped into visiting North Korea with the express purpose of assassinating its leader, Kim Jung-Un.

The picture – which I can now confirm, since I’ve been watching it for the past 45 minutes – depicts exactly that. There is an actor playing the actual, living leader of North Korea, and if the news accounts are correct his head explodes in many directions close to the end.

For its temerity in producing this film, Sony Pictures was subjected to a cyber-attack, and last week announced that it wasn’t going to release the movie at all. But last week, as anyone who has ever met a studio executive can tell you, is a long time ago.

After a blizzard of public statements, each one contradicted by the next, the brain trust that runs Sony Pictures Entertainment finally landed on a decision: the movie, which had once seemed too controversial to release into theatres (there were threats of terrorist actions in retaliation to its theme) would now be released into a limited number of cinemas and, on Christmas Eve, be available for streaming downloads over the internet.

So right when I should have been tending to my family obligations, I’m watching this ridiculous movie and I can only drum up one response.

This? This is what the whole thing has been about? This intermittently and often misaimed picture caused one of the world’s largest multinational corporations with a universally recognised brand to convulse itself in fearful contractions for the past four weeks?

Not to mention getting the US president involved, but let’s be honest: he’s going to be gone in two years, cast into irrelevancy and retirement like all the other former presidents. But Sony, it has at least another 10 or 20 years of profitable business to look forward to – or, now that I think of it, maybe a lot fewer years, now that we know exactly the kind of people who are running its movie division.

But as I sat there, surrounded by wrapping paper and scissors and Sellotape and unwrapped gifts, what I was really watching is the future of Hollywood. No, I don’t mean that Hollywood will from this point onwards allow a foreign dictator to control its slate of pictures. What The Interview has done, from a business perspective, is prove that a streaming video release, direct to the internet, is a viable way to distribute a picture.

A lot of people are going to watch this silly and inconsequential comedy – and for the record, there are some genuine (though quite off-colour) laughs in this movie – and Sony and the rest of Hollywood are about to discover just how possible it is to promote and release a major motion picture without going through the cinemas first.

And that’s ironic, because it was the cinema owners who first refused, a long, long, long two weeks ago, to show the movie in the first place. All they’ve accomplished, it will turn out, is to prove that you really don’t need to show a movie in their theatres at all.

A few of us in Hollywood – and every living soul under 35 – were baffled by how long it took Sony to come to the obvious and only solution, to realise that almost every television set in the country (and most of the developed world) is nothing more than a glorified internet-connected monitor. “Put the movie on the web” we were all shouting in unison.

It took Sony longer than it should have done to figure it out – it always takes studio executives extra time to grasp the obvious – but now that they have, it’ll be hard for them to look at the next pictures in the pipeline, controversial or no, without contemplating this kind of release.

What started as a humiliating black eye for a powerful and far-reaching movie studio may, in the end, turn out to be a watershed moment for Hollywood. And maybe even a profitable one, too.

It’s almost as if this entire episode was planned, as if this was just a piece of diabolically brilliant movie promotion.

Trouble is, I’ve met most of the people in charge over at Sony. Take my word for it: if they were that smart, they’d have made a funnier movie.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl