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What if ‘The Interview’ scandal was the greatest marketing ploy in history?
The weirdest conspiracy theory behind The Interview leak might not be as crazy as you think.
Do you feel that sensation? That painful, jarring, seizure-inducing sensation? That’s your head, spinning back and forth trying to keep up with the latest developments surrounding The Interview.
Yesterday, in what looks like a kind of endgame, Sony announced the latest news on the film, throwing everything off once again. Despite pulling it from theaters last week, Sony will now give The Interview a limited theatrical release, as well as a run on VOD. All this follows a massive leak from Sony, executed by a group called the “Guardians of Peace,” who threatened 9/11 level attacks if the studio released the film.
That Sony will be putting out The Interview in some form on Christmas Day, like originally planned, is indeed a step in the right direction. Yet the sheer turnaround of events is still mind-boggling. It was literally just a couple days ago that they were being criticized for pulling the movie from theaters completely.
As these type of strange occurrences often do, all this has gotten conspiracy theorists speculating, and like most conspiracy theories, the results have been absurd. However, taking into account everything that has happened, it’s fascinating to at least explore even the most implausible theories. In Sony’s case, this means asking a seemingly impossible question: What if they had something to do with their own leaks?
The strangest thing about the narrative surrounding The Interview is just how fast the it has changed. A few weeks ago, it was simply another Seth Rogen–James Franco vehicle, albeit with a slightly more controversial edge. But after the Sony leaks happened, it became clear that the movie was a problem for the studio, if not an insurmountable one. But as it began to look more and more like The Interview was the reason Sony was hacked in the first place, Sony’s issues with the film had less and less to do with how funny it is. Shortly thereafter, the Guardians of Peace began issuing threats conjuring up 9/11, and theater chains began dropping out like flies. And that’s when Sony did what was, only a week ago, unthinkable, and pulled the movie altogether.
The outrage over this was swift and widespread. Everyone from George Clooney to President Obama thought canceling the film’s Christmas Day release was a mistake. All of a sudden, Sony didn’t just look incompetent, they looked like cowards, destined to wear the embarrassment of the situation for years to come.
And then yesterday, everything changed again, when Sony announced they would give The Interview a limited theatrical release on Christmas Day. Now, Sony is able to claim they essentially swooped in and saved the day at the last minute, becoming the heroes of this story. Most theater chains still won’t play the movie, and the Guardians of Peace (whoever they happen to be) are still out there, but Sony now looks far less spineless than they did a couple of days ago. The movie is coming out, people who want to see it get to do so, no one is going to accuse Sony of backing down in the face of terrorist threats, and they might even make some decent money off The Interview now. Everybody wins. America wins.
Perhaps the real turning point here was when Sony bought in crisis management expert Judy Smith, the real life inspiration behind Scandal’s Olivia Pope, to clean up their mess. Because if Sony’s Interview problem didn’t feel like an episode of Scandal before, it certainly did after that. The elements were all there: a group of mysterious but vicious hackers, embarrassing details gone public, a desperate studio, turning public opinion, rallying cries from the media and high profile celebrities, and finally, Olivia Pope (or in this case, Judy Smith) brought into the center of it all to fix everything. The episode practically writes itself.
Of course, as anyone who has seen Scandal knows, Olivia’s cases are rarely as they seem. There’s almost always a twist late in the game which throws everything out of balance. In the case of Sony, could that twist actually be that they helped perpetuate the leaks themselves?
Let’s look at it from this angle: The Interview has gone from being an average studio comedy to an inadvertently important piece of satire overnight. “On the other hand, a few days ago The Interview was being written off not only as a $42 million loss, but as a cave-in by Sony and theater operators,” writes the Washington Post’s Fred Barbash. “Now, boosted by the president of the United States, the movie has become “a case study on whether all publicity is good publicity,” as Variety’s Dave McNary put it. So far, the study looked good for Sony: While Rotten Tomatoes scored it at 52 for its “middling laughs,” a dismal critical rating, it gave it a 96 on the “want to see” scale.” It even has a 10 on IMDb.
But the most important thing that Barbash points out is that where The Interview once looked to be a potential mess for Sony, people now view releasing and even seeing the film as our “patriotic duty.” In fact, The Interview has become the rare rallying point that Democrats and Republicans can both get behind; how often does that happen?
Granted, let’s all put this in perspective for a moment and consider that Sony should, in theory, have been able to make more money off The Interview’s initial, wide release than the limited theatrical and VOD run it’s now offering. However, their reputation as a studio has gone from painfully bad to much, much better within a day thanks solely to their decision to reverse their initial decision not to put the movie out at all. Did they really have to do a lot, when it comes right down to it? Yes, they had a lot of critical choices to make, but they’ve also gotten a lot of free press for their movie in the process. Meanwhile, they’ve insured that people won’t just want to see The Interview this year, but that they’ll talk about and want to see The Interview for years to come. So when you weigh the initial black mark the movie could’ve been, with the long-term victory it may become, there’s still a good chance Sony will come out on top here.
Let’s also keep in mind that a lot of knowledgeable people have been skeptical about whether North Korea had anything to do with the Sony hack in the first place. Many have theorized it could be a disgruntled ex-employee. Most eyebrow-raising in terms of the evidence which suggests that North Korea didn’t do it is the timing. As Wired’s Kim Zetter pointed out, in their initial threats against Sony, the Guardians of Peace made no mention of The Interview at all, and only began denouncing it once others made the connection.
We’re moving into crazy territory here, so let’s tread lightly.
Exploring similar ideas, Simon Kelner at the Independent (an entirely reputable publication, mind you) asserts, “I am not a crazy conspiracy theorist,” which pretty much immediately makes him look like a crazy conspiracy theorist, but he nevertheless proceeds, asking: “Let me just put this one out there. Do you think it’s possible that the North Korean regime was not actually behind the cyber attack on Sony Pictures? Could it be that a teenage geek, from his bedroom in, say, Palo Alto, hacked into the Sony system, and the movie company was so embarrassed that it had to find someone to blame and who better than the bogey men from Pyongyang?”
“Could it even be a brilliantly orchestrated publicity campaign for The Interview, the spoof film that—allegedly—so angered Kim Jung-un?” Kelner continues. “Or, maybe, Sony wanted the world to know that Angelina Jolie was not a superhero of world peace, but, in fact, was a ‘minimally talented spoiled brat,’ or that George Clooney gets upset by bad reviews, just like everyone else.”
Kelner, who was formerly the editor of the Independent, goes on to speculate that a totalitarian regime like North Korea would not feel threatened enough by a movie like The Interview to actually fight back, and wonders instead if the whole thing is some kind of brilliant experiment. “Maybe I am a crazy conspiracy theorist,” he muses. “But I do think the questions are worth asking, because there’s something that doesn’t quite smell right about this story.”
And that’s the thing: something has always smelled fishy in regards to the Sony leaks. Maybe it’s just the unprecedented nature of it all, or that we’re paying this much attention to a movie like The Interview to begin with. However, it’s hard to deny that the situation is somewhat surreal; you know when people start making Scandal comparisons that things are going off the rails.
Moreover, there are far crazier conspiracy theories about The Interview out there which make the possibility that Sony had something to do with all this seem that much more likely, just by comparison. After all, is it really so insane to think that Sony would go to such great lengths, if they knew in the end they would come out on top?
Yes, it is that insane. If nothing else, it’s insane to give Sony that much credit. But the idea is remains interesting to entertain, nonetheless. The very notion that Sony would’ve had the foresight to orchestrate their own disgrace and subsequent comeback doesn’t make sense from any rational standpoint. But then again, nothing about the Sony leaks and the release of The Interview has made any rational sense up till this point, so it’s only fair to wonder.
Photo via Sony/YouTube
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.