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After Sony Hack, Hollywood Searches for a New Villain
From the Wall Street Journal of Thu, 18 Dec 2014 22:28:57 EST
A poster for the movie ‘The Interview’ is removed at a Carmike movie theater in Atlanta on Wednesday.
A poster for the movie ‘The Interview’ is removed at a Carmike movie theater in Atlanta on Wednesday. David Goldman/AP Photo

Ripples from Sony Pictures’ decision not to release its controversial comedy “The Interview” immediately reached other entertainment projects in the works as producers and studios sought to distance themselves from productions involving North Korea.

That country has often served as the villain of choice in Hollywood films as U.S. relations with other once-hostile nations have grown more complex. China, for instance, has emerged as the world’s second-biggest market for movies, and studios are often fearful of angering its powerful censors.

The calculus involving North Korea appeared to be changing quickly following the Sony hack and its aftermath, and many studios were reconsidering even minor references to the Communist nation.

One script in early development at Twentieth Century Fox, “The Defection,” features North Korea as only a relatively small plot point. An intelligence contractor defects to the country early in the story, which then takes place within the confines of the Central Intelligence Agency.

But even that cameo by the Communist country could be reexamined in the wake of “The Interview” drama, said one producer on the project.

“I thought about it yesterday multiple times,” he said. “Should we make it easy on ourselves and change it?”

A Fox spokesman said the studio doesn’t comment on projects in development. (Until last year Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox Inc., was part of News Corp, the owner of The Wall Street Journal.)

“Pyongyang,” a quirky film set in North Korea that was scheduled to begin production in March, was cancelled altogether by New Regency, the company producing it. Fox was to have distributed the film but was not an investor.

Based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Guy Delisle, the film was to detail a Western character’s experiences in Pyongyang, where he went to do animation-related work and struggled to comprehend the totalitarian society.

Fox told New Regency it would no longer distribute the movie. A Fox spokesman confirmed it wouldn’t distribute the movie but declined to elaborate further. The film’s star, Steve Carell, wrote on Twitter: “Sad day for creative expression.” Neither Mr. Carell nor the film’s director, Gore Verbinski, was available to comment.

Sony Corp.’s Sony Pictures pulled “The Interview” after a furious hacking attack on the company that U.S. officials blame on the isolated nation. Terrorist threats apparently related to the hack proved the last straw, leading many movie theaters to say they wouldn’t show the film.

Sony declined to comment.

Earlier this week, the major studios’ trade group, the Motion Picture Association of America, issued a statement calling Sony “friends and family” and saying “we feel for them.”

Few others waded into the controversy until the movie was pulled from release, and individual studios have said nothing publicly about the episode.

Many were scrambling to distance themselves from the controversy—even, in some cases, when it came to older movies.

Viacom Inc. ’s Paramount Pictures told theaters it was pulling “Team America: World Police” from release even though it came out in 2004. That means no further screenings will be permitted until the studio lifts the ban. Older films can typically be pulled from screenings if a studio wants to focus on a new installment of a franchise or rere-
lease the feature on its own as part of an anniversary campaign.

“Team America,” a musical comedy from the team behind “South Park,” became newly controversial in the wake of “The Interview” fallout. It features Kim Jong Un ’s father, the late dictator Kim Jong Il, as a singing puppet who is at one point impaled.

Some theaters had planned to screen “Team America” in response to Sony’s “Interview” decision. Others had scheduled screenings before the hubbub started. That’s the case with the Cleveland Cinemas in Ohio, which had been planning a “Team America” screening in June 2015, only to be told by Paramount Thursday it won’t be happening, said the theater’s marketing director, David Huffman.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an undated photo released by North Korea's news agency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an undated photo released by North Korea's news agency. KCNA/Reuters

Paramount declined to comment.

Some actors and directors blasted Sony’s decision. In a post to his Facebook page, Dan Sterling, the screenwriter behind “The Interview,” called the move a “huge disappointment.”

“It’s a real bummer that the terrorists won,” wrote Mr. Sterling, whose previous writing credits are mostly for television comedies. He declined to be interviewed.

Not releasing “The Interview,” even via video-on-demand or online will eliminate crucial revenue that is used to pay workers of all stripes on a production.

“The short answer: Sony takes a huge loss,” said Schuyler M. Moore, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. The studio sunk $44 million into producing the film and spent millions more on marketing. If it doesn’t come out at all, Sony will recoup none of that investment.

As for people involved in “The Interview” who might have expected additional income from profit sharing or residuals, “there’s nothing they can do about it,” Mr. Moore said.

Stars like Seth Rogen often earn a significant amount of their salary from profit-participation agreements, while “below-the-line” workers like electricians and grips on set might get a smaller portion of the returns.

Sony is most likely protected against lawsuits from “Interview” workers seeking lost income, said Mr. Moore, because most studios don’t make contractual commitments to release a film once it’s made.

Mr. Moore said the decision to cancel the release was going to change Hollywood “across the board” and quash projects before they come close to the green-light stage.

“What will get left out? What will not be said? What movies will not be made?” Mr. Moore remarked. “No other studio in Hollywood wants to risk this.”

Write to Erich Schwartzel at and Joe Flint at

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