Sony has decided not to release “The Interview,” after multiple exhibitors, including 17 theatres in Toronto, cancelled screenings. The cancellations were announced after an unknown organization, possibly linked to North Korea, threatened attacks on theatres showing the film. North Korea doesn’t like the film, a comedy about assassinating Kim Jong-un, for obvious reasons, but denies responsibility for the electronic attack on Sony and the threat, and many experts do not see the threat as credible. The controversy has also led to Fox cancelling a planned film set in North Korea.
Anti-censorship advocates see this as a victory for opponents of free speech. Censorship by pressure groups has been a problem for decades, but artists in any medium should always remember that just because they make something does not mean other people have to buy it. Of course, this presumes artists at least have access to the market. Corporations that dominate some arts industries, like video games, can be just as powerful as governments when it comes to censorship, and unlike governments (at least democracies), they don’t have to answer to anyone.
For all of Hollywood’s bluster over the cancellation, films are routinely modified to appease one group or another. One of the earliest industry rules for making films, from 1927, was don’t give “willful offense to any nation, race, or creed.” It’s no longer a written rule, but still observed to ensure overseas sales are not affected. For example, in the German theatrical release of Die Hard, the bad guys were English/Irish, not German. For decades, Canadian censors ordered cuts or bans that might offend some segment of the population, not just to avoid giving offense, but to encourage social harmony. In 1952, Outrages of the Orient was banned, and the censor noted:
This picture portrays the atrocities perpetuated by the invading Japanese armies upon the Philippine Islands in 1942 and in light of present day events and a world trying to rise above feelings of hatred and revenge, I consider the showing of this picture to be against the public welfare.
In this more enlightened age, we no longer worry about the world or the public welfare when making or rating movies. Not surprisingly, sometimes people get offended. But banning or supporting bans is not usually the best response. As the Ontario censor said in 1963, “banning any film today only arouses controversy and brings it a publicity value it does not deserve.”
Update Dec 26, 2014: Sony went ahead with a limited release, including online distribution – and is getting yet more media coverage for that.