Pres. Obama on Sony Hacks: "I wish they'd spoken to me first." So Why Didn't They?

December 20th 2014

Mike Vainisi

President Obama spoke bluntly yesterday, saying that Sony's decision to pull its film The Interview was a mistake. He also said that Sony executives should have talked to him before making the decision.

"I wish they'd spoken to me first," the president said. "I would have told them: Do not get into the pattern in which you are intimidated."

This raises an interesting question: how did Sony and the White House not talk about this?

Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton pushed back on the president last night in an interview that has been teased by CNN.

"We definitely spoke to a senior advisor in the White House to talk about the situation," Lyton reportedly told CNN. "The White House was certainly aware of the situation."

Yes, it would be strange if no one from Sony talked to the White House or the State Department before making a decision like this one. It could play into the narrative that Sony has botched the fallout from the hack. Or maybe the White House failed to property communicate with Sony. Either way, there was a short circuit in the decision making process

Lynton is certainly no stranger to the White House. He and his wife were two of the biggest financial bundlers to the president's campaign, collecting $200,000 and $500,000, respectively in 2008. Lynton bundled over $200,000 for the president in 2012. (Bundler means a political donor who not only gives his or her own money to a candidate, but also collects money from friends for the candidate.) Lynton also served on the Broadcasting Board of Directors, which is an independent federal agency. Suffice to say, one would assume Lynton could get the president on the phone.

Are the theater owners getting enough blame?

To be fair to Lynton and Sony, the company did not make this decision alone. The major theater owners, such as Regal and AMC, made the first move, deciding not to show the picture in any of their theaters after hackers threatened "9/11 style" attacks at screenings. That led Sony to go ahead and completely nix the Christmas Day release.

"The President, the press, and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened," Lynton said in the interview with CNN. "We do not own movie theaters. We cannot determine whether or not a movie will be played in movie theaters."

George Clooney, who has been very critical of the decision to pull the film, also throws some blame on the theater owners.

"Sony didn’t pull the movie because they were scared," Clooney told Deadline. "They pulled the movie because all the theaters said they were not going to run it. And they said they were not going to run it because they talked to their lawyers and those lawyers said if somebody dies in one of these, then you’re going to be responsible."

In defense of the theater chains, Clooney is right -- if something were to happen, the theaters would have been blamed for not taking this threat seriously. Imagine the theater owners trying to defend a lawsuit after proceeding with screenings in the face of a known threat. It's also important to remember that Hollywood still has fresh memories of the 2012 mass shooting in a theater in Aurora, Co. on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises. It's likely that these companies cannot guarantee safety at their theaters across the country. 

But this raises another question: Did the theater owners consult with the White House before canceling these screenings? Considering we were talking about possible international terrorism, you'd hope these major companies were talking to the government, even if the threats were not credible. 

What about streaming?

As many have pointed out, why can't Sony release the movie online? Lynton reportedly told CNN that no online video on-demand partner has offered to stream the film.

"We have not given in. And we have not backed down. We have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie," Lyton told CNN.

But, as The Verge says, does someone need to tell Lynton that his company has its own streaming platform? It's called Crackle, and it's known for Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." Crackle, by the way, is a nascent streaming platform that might really benefit from a high-profile exclusive release like The Interview.

Clooney thinks the leak of embarrassing emails between Sony executives, particularly one making a joke about President Obama's race, may have scared away potential supporters of Sony.

"Here’s the brilliant thing [the hackers] did. You embarrass [Sony] first, so that no one gets on [their] side," Clooney said to Deadline. "After the Obama joke, no one was going to get on the side of [Sony Motion Pictures Chairman] Amy [Pascal], and so suddenly, everyone ran for the hills. Look, I can’t make an excuse for that joke, it is what it is, a terrible mistake. Having said that, it was used as a weapon of fear, not only for everyone to disassociate themselves from Amy but also to feel the fear themselves."

Is the American film industry changed forever? 

Another subplot to all of this is Paramount's decision to cancel showings of 2004's Team America: World Police, which was made by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. That film mocked then-North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, and some independent theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Dallas, Tex., planned on screening the film as an act of defiance against the North Korean regime. That symbolic gesture has been stopped by Paramount. 

"I’m concerned that content now is constantly going to be judged on a different level," Clooney told Deadline. "And that’s a terrible thing to do. What we don’t need happening in any of our industries is censorship."

Clooney also mentioned that he recently circulated a petition to heads of the studios. The petition said that the studios supported Sony's effort to stand up to blackmail by hackers. 

No one signed.