UPDATE, 2:55 PM: Theater owners are keeping mum, for now, to avoid becoming targets if they defy today’s hacker threat against venues that show Sony’s The Interview. But one exhibition chain exec — who still intends to present the film, and declined to be identified — offered this insight into security precautions at one site: “Our first call was to the chief of police to get his assessment of the terrorist threat level. He concurred with what is being reported in the media; the threat of terrorist action is extremely low. That said, the police department will be doing a security briefing with our managers and staff so that everyone is on the lookout for any suspicious behavior.”
PREVIOUS, 1:39 PM: Is it just a matter of time before now threatened theaters start pulling The Interview from their Christmas Day schedules? With the latest salvo today from hackers of possible attacks on screenings of the Seth Rogen and James Franco film and evoking the specter of 9/11, the legal stakes just got a lot higher or certainly more precise. Sony Pictures has now been forewarned that something might happen.
“Precautions, like extra security, should be taken to ensure safety and offset liability,” said a Hollywood litigation lawyer today. “Everybody should be warned. How they do that, besides signs in the lobby, I don’t know.” NATO and the MPAA have had no comment on today’s threat but you can be sure they are talking about it. Even with their nearly month long hacking nightmare still drawing blood, does Sony kneecap its multi-million dollar investment and The Interview further by capitulating the comedy to what could be a hollow threat? “If this were one of our releases, I would recommend we take the loss and yank it out at this point,” a non-Sony studio exec said today. “There is too much risk from too many corners.”
Studios rely upon security experts to vet the seriousness of threats and to help decide whether this is coming from a hacker living in his mother’s basement, or from someone more sinister. That informs decisions that in the past have ranged from bringing in metal detectors, all the way up to pulling a movie from theaters. Those conversations are surely taking place right now, though Sony Pictures has so far been silent today. Pulling a movie is rare. Back in 1979, Paramount Pictures had little expectations for the Walter Hill-directed violent gang movie The Warriors (the only test screening was tepid). When the movie opened, there were mob scenes across the country. Theaters sold out; those who could not get in crashed exit doors in Westwood. Several moviegoers died. Though it had a potential hit on its hands, Paramount cut its losses quickly. After initially bringing in metal detectors, the studio pulled the movie from theaters after its second weekend and the studio shouldered the loss rather than risk seeing more moviegoers hurt. The movie eventually became a cult classic. The difference between The Warriors and The Interview is clear: Paramount had no warning that violence might erupt.
A spokesperson for the FBI told Deadline that they “are aware of the latest threats.” As it is right now, the December 18 NYC premiere of the pic is set to still go ahead ahead on the Lower East Side at the Sunshine Cinema.
If something does happen at theaters showing The Interview, today’s hacker threat means that no one can say they didn’t know or at the very least have a reasonable expectation – the latter being perhaps the pivotal point. While they are different in obvious ways, the 2012 shooting at The Dark Knight Rises proves a contextual parallel to some extent.
Almost since the day of the July 20, 2012 fatal shooting rampage at the Cinemark owned Aurora Century 16 multiplex, the chain has unsuccessfully tried to have legal actions against it by the victims and their families tossed. In this case, the now combined lawsuit cites a lack of adequate security at the venue for contributing to the deaths of their loved ones. Cinemark has long said that it could not have reasonably known that someone like James Holmes would come into the Batman screening heavily armed and kill 12 people and wound 70 more.
However, this August, Judge R. Brooke Jackson refused Cinemark’s request to dismiss the case. While noting that a theatre shooting hadn’t happened in American at that point, the judge said “one might reasonably believe that a mass shooting incident in a theater was likely enough (that is, not just a possibility) to be a foreseeable next step in the history of such acts by deranged individuals.” Added to that, Cinemark did offer local managers the option to bring in extra security for the TDKR debut screenings that summer night over two years ago – something the Aurora Century 16 did not do.
Stocks in all of the major exhibition chains slipped this afternoon after the latest threat. Industry leader Regal closed -0.3%, but AMC fell 2.1%, Carmike was -1.6%, and Cinemark was -2.6%
“This is a horror show that doesn’t seem to end,” says long time media investor Harold Vogel. “Why can’t this picture just be pulled off totally? Why do you need this headache? There are plenty of other pictures out there. All these things are made in the self-reflective echo chamber of Hollywood.”
So what will Sony and the theaters do?
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