UPDATED: Sony CEO Michael Lynton further contradicted President Obama’s criticism that Sony had “made a mistake” in handling the release of The Interview in his full sit-down with CNN on Friday. Obama said today that the studio did not come to him for help when cyberterrorists crippled the studio in a November hacking attack ordered by North Korea, but Lynton said the President was the mistaken one. “We definitely spoke to a senior advisor in the White House to talk about the situation,” he confirmed. “The White House was certainly aware of the situation.”
What’s more: Sony also consulted with the US State Department before the November hacking attack to assess any potential political heat the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy might provoke. Lynton said Sony went to experts, think tanks, and the State Department “to get an understanding of whether or not there was a problem” with the comedy about two bumbling journalists sent to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
The experts’ answer? “We were told there wasn’t a problem, so we continued to proceed,” Lynton said tonight in a pre-taped interview with CNN. “The U.S. government told us there wasn’t a problem.”
“I think (Sony) made a mistake,” President Obama told reporters earlier today at a White House presser. “I wish they’d spoken to me first. I would have told them, ‘Do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks’.”
Obama’s rebuke prompted the quick response from Lynton, as Sony scrambled to counter the media narrative that they chose to cave to the hackers. The finger pointing spun to exhibitors like AMC, Regal, and Carmike, who balked at being liable for potential 9/11-style attacks on theaters screening the film, which was set to open on Christmas Day. Lynton told CNN that Sony allowed the theater owners decide if they’d carry the film, but when the major chains started dropping like flies the studio “had no alternative but to not proceed with the theatrical release on the 25th of December.”
Sony clarified with an official statement, noting that they’re still mulling ways to get the film released: “The only decision that we have made with respect to release of the film was not to release it on Christmas Day in theaters, after the theater owners declined to show it. Without theaters, we could not release it in the theaters on Christmas Day. We had no choice.”
In the full broadcast interview, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria referenced Deadline’s exclusive Q&A with George Clooney in which the Oscar winner said he tried to circulate a petition of support for Sony among Hollywood’s top brass but no one would sign it. “Have you been surprised by the fact that no one has been willing to rally around you?” Zakaria asked Lynton.
“I am surprised, frankly,” the exec said. “I mean, I understand on the one hand that my fellow CEOs and everybody else have their own commercial concerns and they themselves were worried about becoming a target. And it did make this entire enterprise to be a very, very lonely affair. But on the other hand, this is a moment when you’d expect the industry to rally around and support you.”
Lynton, an Obama supporter, had to have felt even lonelier after the President took Sony to task over The Interview. “I would be fibbing to say I wasn’t disappointed,” he admitted. “The president and I haven’t spoken. I don’t know exactly whether he understands the sequence of events that led up to the movie’s not being shown in theaters.”
Asked if he thought Sony Pictures had inadequate cyber security, Lynton said it was “absolutely sufficient.”
“Both the FBI and the experts who we brought in basically said that the (hackers’) malware was so sophisticated that 90% of American businesses would have fallen prey to what happened to us,” Lynton said. “As a result they stole all of our data, wiped our computers clean and then destroyed the computers and the servers, all of which is in the FBI report that came out today.”
Ironically, Lynton pointed out, evidence of Sony’s attempts to mitigate risks over The Interview was exposed for the world to see when hackers leaked his emails in a recent data dump.
Most of all, he said the cyber attack has harmed Sony, its employees, and contacts outside the company affected by the information leaks. Morale has suffered. “It’s hurtful to everyone at Sony Pictures – and, by the way, the folks who work with us outside of Sony Pictures,” he said. “That part has been damaging and hurtful. It’s not nice to have your emails exposed to the general public. It has had a real effect on the morale of the company, and many people are frightened because of it. We’ll recover. We’ve worked very, very hard to do so, and we’re in the process now.”
Would Lynton make the movie again if he had the chance to do this all over?
“Yeah, I would make the movie again,” he said. “I think, you know, for the same reasons we made it in the first place – it was a funny comedy, it served as political satire. I think we would have made the movie again. Knowing what I know now, we might have, uh, done some things slightly differently, but I think a lot of events have overtaken us in a way that we had no control over the facts.”
“We would still like the public to see this movie, absolutely,” he added. Sony says no major alternative distributors have yet agreed to release The Interview (after Lynton’s taping, BitTorrent publicly offered to take the leap with Sony and release the film through their file-sharing platform). The company is taking time to mull its options.
In the meantime, Lynton says Obama is welcome to take a gander.
“If the president wants to see the movie, I would be more than delighted to send it to him. It would be my pleasure,” he said.