Opinion

TOM KEANE

Is the Sony hack attack a PR stunt?

Sony canceled its Christmas release of “The Interview” in response to threats from hackers.

AP/file 2014

Sony canceled its Christmas release of “The Interview” in response to threats from hackers.

Here’s my theory about “The Interview” and the Sony hacking scandal: It’s all a PR stunt. And even if I’m wrong, that’s the way it’s playing out. We all want to fight terrorism.

The scenario: Confronted with a mediocre movie seemingly destined to fail at the box office, Sony executives concocted a bold plan. First came the hacking, with the late November release of Sony employees’ social security numbers, e-mails, salary information, and even copies of unreleased films. The perpetrators were supposedly a group calling itself “Guardians of the Peace,” which, to be frank, sounds like the runnerup name for another 2014 hit movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy” (not for nothing, that’s a production Sony Picture Imageworks worked on).

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I can hear your objections. Much of the released information was scandalous. Producer Scot Rudin, for example, called actor Angelina Jolie “a minimally talented spoiled brat.” Also revealed were racially-tinged emails about Barack Obama between Rudin and Amy Pascal, head of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Why would Sony subject itself to such embarrassment?

All in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

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But wasn’t the FBI able to prove the hacks came from North Korea? This is, of course, the same agency that a recent inquiry found had mishandled evidence at its offices all across the country. On top of that, moviemakers are masters of illusion. The folks at Sony who had me believing Jonah Hill was hanging on to a helicopter on “22 Jump Street” shouldn’t have had a hard time pretending to be North Korean hackers.

Then came the threats. “We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places ‘The Interview’ be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to,” the Guardians of Peace inarticulately warned on Dec. 16. Theatrical chains freaked and Sony pulled the film’s planned Christmas Day release.

All of the sudden, we had a full-blown crisis. In a press conference, President Obama said Sony “made a mistake” in backing down. “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States,” he added, “any more than Boston didn’t run its marathon this year because of the possibility that somebody might try to cause harm.”

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We can see where this is going. Sony will, after some dithering, agree to release the movie. We’ll all puff up our chests and patriotically flock to theaters, acts of defiance against anyone who dares try to bully us. Those who attend will walk around with buttons proclaiming, “I survived ‘The Interview.’ ” We’ll start wearing “Sony Strong” T-shirts. Critics who disparage the film will be castigated as tools of Kim Jong-un.

And Sony will clean up.

You may think this fantasy, but there’s precedent. To promote a book, for instance, PR maven Ryan Holiday bought billboards which he then pretended were being defaced by those offended by the book. That stirred real-life protests and even provoked editorials in the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. The book sold well. And during the Super Bowl this year, J.C. Penney sent out outlandish tweets that seemed like someone drunk had taken over its account. They got enormous attention; the drunk act itself was faked.

Indeed, let’s hope Sony-hack is bogus, because the opposite seems even more absurd. It’s one thing for someone to steal information from a computer system; that’s old-hat by now. But to think, as Sony and movie chains apparently do, that North Korea could somehow hurt theatergoers is a flight of fancy, a case of Hollywood believing its own fantasies -- such as the seminal hacking movie, “War Games” with a very young Matthew Broderick.

Many commentators have decried the cancellation of “The Interview” as an example of just how nervous and scared we are. That may apply to some celebrities and moviemakers, but not the rest of us. Obama was right in his Boston Marathon analogy: More people ran in 2014 than 2013 and the crowds were undiminished. Indeed, the most desired viewing locations were right where the two bombs went off. Afraid or not, we refuse to be intimidated.

So, PR stunt or not, Sony, just release the movie. We’ll all go.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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