ProductionWhat Sony Can Teach Indies
January 6, 2015
Following the saga of Sony Pictures' The Interview has been a real-time education on studio filmmaking, free speech, and internet security. But the one thing that's stuck out to me has been the vacuum Sony found itself in and Hollywood's culture of fear and victimhood. As an indie filmmaker, this has clarified for me just how entrenched the CYA (Cover Your Ass) approach is in the studio world—and it's showed me how important it is for indies not to follow in their footsteps.
Right from the beginning, after being hacked and threatened with violence if theaters played the film, Sony tried to pass the buck. They told exhibitors they were planning on moving forward with the release, but that if they wanted to back out, the studio would support their decision. “Let us be clear— the only decision that we have made with respect to release of the film was not to release it on Christmas Day in theaters, after the theater owners declined to show it,” Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton said. “Without theaters, we could not release it in the theaters on Christmas Day. We had no choice.”
But of course they had a choice. Sony had signed contracts from every exhibitor that said no to putting the film out. They easily could have gone forward with the release if they had wanted. Instead, they made someone else make the decision (the theater chains), so they could cry victim.
And if this weren't bad enough, the rest of Hollywood ended up with egg on its face, too. Actor George Clooney and his agent, Bryan Lourd, sent out a petition of support for Sony – one that nobody would sign. They sent it to the heads of film, TV, and music companies, looking for additional voices of support Sony, to stand up against terroristic threats. But no one would take a stand with them. Everyone was content to leave Sony in the wilderness. Director Judd Apatow wasn't surprised by the town's keeping quiet. He said on Twitter, “It is not shocking that nobody signed Clooney's petition. Almost nobody here will acknowledge that Bill Cosby has been accused of rape x30.”
The pity party continued when Lynton addressed digital distribution for The Interview. “There has not been one major VOD distributor or e-commerce site that said they are willing to distribute this movie for us,” he said. But guess what? They didn't need one! They own an online streaming service called Crackle, which they could easily use to distribute the film. And, don't forget, Sony makes the Playstation. If I remember correctly, you can watch content on that, too. Sony was doing its best to make people think they were forced into this position, but they were simply scared to put the movie out.
The reaction to this was quick and fierce. Apatow said that pulling the film was done in panic, and indie movie theater owners, like Tim League of Alamo Drafthouse, wrote up their own petition, pledging support to help Sony with their originally-planned Christmas Day release. Even President Obama got in on the action, saying he thought Sony made a mistake. So then what happens? Lynton does an interview, saying “We would still like the public to see this movie. Absolutely.”
First they were scared of putting the movie out, then they were scared to look bad.
Lynton eventually announced that Sony would team up with U.S. independent theater owners and chains, and release The Interview theatrically with them, starting on Christmas Day. But wait! Rather than giving the premiere to those who helped them in their hour of need, Sony released the film online— on Christmas Eve! Youtube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Sony itself (through a site called Kernel) premiered the film online a day ahead, depriving theaters of thousands of potential customers who watched the film at home instead. This is how Sony treats its friends.
This isolation and addiction to CYA, fortunately, is something I don't see as much of in the independent film world. And I think this whole catastrophe can teach us something about supporting each other. I believe this YOYO (you're on your own) attitude by Big Media will lead to a further softening of content: Their bets will keep getting safer and safer. (Transformers 5, anyone?) But that won't work for us. Indie film is a home for edgy content, stories that may piss people off, or tackle sensitive subjects. We need each other's support to continue to fund, produce, and distribute those kinds of stories —or any other kind of story we may want to make. That won't work if we have a YOYO attitude.
There's also something to learn about brand management here. I look at Hollywood studios as less than brave (to be kind) as a result of this. That's the last thing I'd want people to think when they think of me as a filmmaker. I want to be known as someone who makes thought-provoking work, and who supports my peers. So that's what I try to do. If a fellow indie filmmaker made something that provoked this kind of reaction, I'd be standing with them. I stand with Rogen, co-writer/director Evan Goldberg and The Interview, too – I bought a ticket and watched the movie in a theater. No creator should face censorship because of their studio's cowardice. Hollywood's courage, it can safely be said, isn't what it used to be. Charlie Chaplin started shooting his Hitler satire The Great Dictator a week after World War II started! That Hollywood no longer stands up for their talent hurts their brand. But if you support your filmmaking brethren, your brand will be fine.
There are also nuts-and-bolts filmmaking errors the indie world can learn from in The Interview's release. When Kernel offered the film online on Christmas Eve, anyone who rented it could download an unprotected copy locally, through a pretty serious loophole. In part because of this over 1.5 million pirated copies of the film are now floating around online, representing millions of dollars of lost revenue. So when you distribute your film online, make sure you have your DRM issues taken care of. Sony is also being sued by Korean singer Yoon Mi-Rae for illegal use of her song “Pay Day” in the film, saying that Sony never came to an agreement with her label before using the song anyway. The lesson here? Make sure you have the rights to everything you put in your films.
So let's learn from Sony's, and Hollywood's, mistakes. Let's help each other tell stories—stories about all genders, all races, all socioeconomic statuses, in places from all over the world, about topics you don't see in studio films. Let's support them by standing with their filmmakers if they face censorship. And let's support them financially, whether by crowdfunding or buying tickets. (Preferably, both.)
Let's never forget that a rising tide lifts all boats. Hollywood just cares about their particular boat. Let's all care about putting more water in the ocean.