In making a comedy about killing North Korean president Kim Jong Un, Sony Pictures anticipated the film would have its critics. But as the initial release date of The Interview neared, studio executives debated a more specific concern: Was releasing the film on a North Korean national holiday devoted to the founding of the country's ruling party taking things a step too far?
Leaked emails from Sony executives show the company questioning the launch date, as well as broader concerns about a buddy comedy that depicts the killing of a real-life foreign head of state. Members of the company's legal and international units were particularly concerned about the film's inflammatory content; people closer to the creative teams held a more relaxed view.
On May 20, Keith Weaver, the executive vice president for worldwide government affairs at Sony, said the planned release date of Oct. 10 was awkward, as it was the same day as the North Korean holiday that commemorates the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.
"The holiday itself is a big deal and involves many ceremonies and marches and weapons displays around the Worker's Party monument, which is depicted in the opening scene (what the missile launches out of/from)," he said. "Should I do anything?"
Sony Pictures Entertainment general counsel Leah Weil said the planned date "seems perhaps unintentionally (unnecessarily) offensive." In response Weaver said that Jeff Blake, then the vice chairman of Sony Pictures, was "unaware and really appreciated the call" and said that "the right people are discussing" moving the date.
When, in August, Sony decided to move The Interview's release date to Christmas, several outlets portrayed the move as a confident one, and Entertainment Weekly called it a "Christmas gift" to Kim Jong Un. James Weaver, the president of Seth Rogen's production company, said in an email that "the coverage has been really great and this Christmas present to Kim Jun-un idea is awesome and keeps coming up."
But concerns about the film's potential to offend audiences, especially in East Asia, were voiced earlier by overseas executives.
On May 20, head of international distribution Steven O'Dell said he would send a print of the movie to Sun Yong Hwang, a Sony executive in South Korea, but said that he expected them not to release it, and he "will not even suggest we try to censor the film." In response, Hwang wrote O'Dell, "Do you think there will be a possibility that Kim Jun Eun may launch missles to our office if we release it?"
O'Dell responded, "The film itself will be a bomb there all by itself."
He also said releasing the film on a North Korean national holiday "seems unnecessarily antagonistic especially if we doubt the film can be commercial."
In June, Hwang made it very clear that the movie would be unacceptable in South Korea. "Above all, it make a North Korean head too much caricature and strange North Korean accent is not acceptable to our audience," she said. "Also there would be a big potential to produce the political issue about North Korea as well."
Also in June, Robert Crockett, a Disney executive for Southeast Asia, recommended that The Interview not be released in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, citing "very stringent rules & regulations on discriminatory and racial inflammatory content" in Singapore and Malaysia, and that it would not be commercially viable in Indonesia.
Sony ultimately decided not to release the movie in Asia, and Kazuo Hirai, CEO of the Sony parent corporation, made a rare intervention in the creative process, requesting that "a scene in which Mr. Kim's head explodes when hit by a tank shell be toned down to remove images of flaming hair and chunks of skull," the New York Times reported.
Many suspect that North Korea is behind the devastating hack of Sony Pictures, although neither Sony nor any law enforcement agency has accused the North Korean government in public. Last week North Korea denied that it was behind the hack, but described it as "righteous." In a message that some Sony employees received from a group purporting to be the hackers, threats were made to employees and their family if they planned to release "the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!"
In a damning email on May 30, first uncovered by Gawker, Peter Taylor, a Sony Pictures executive in the United Kingdom, said the film was a "misfire" and was "desperately unfunny and repetitive," until the last 20 minutes, when it "stopped being a comedy altogether with a level of realistic violence that would be shocking in a horror movie." Taylor did say, "on the plus side," that the film had one of Rogen's best performances, and that "the concept itself despite being poorly executed is sellable."
After a trailer was released in June, the North Korean government criticized the movie, prompting Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton to say in an email to Amy Pascal, "better if seth does not do any tweeting for a while until we sort it out."
However, while Lynton was hoping the controversy would blow over, Pascal decided that the company should distance itself from the film. In one email, she told Blake that "we need sonys name off this asap everywhere." Sony's legal staff also discussed taking Sony's name off of promotional materials. Lynton then received a series of emails detailing how Sony's name was being removed from from the trailer and credits.
A few days later, a group of Sony executives were emailed a BBC story with the headline "North Korea threatens war on US over North Korea movie," Pascal responded "Is this a joke."
Hwang, the Korean executive, responded "Let me find out but it will be fine." Hannah Minghella, the president of Columbia Pictures, said "I think it's very real and very scary." Andrea Giametti, the executive vice president for product at Columbia, said, "We survived opus day and Jesus freaks on davinci. Al queda on zero dark thirty. And we will on this too."
Matthew Zeitlin is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Zeitlin reports on Wall Street and big banks.
Contact Matthew Zeitlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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