How Small American Movie Theaters Stood Up To North Korean Thuggery

How Small American Movie Theaters Stood Up To North Korean Thuggery

While everyone else chattered about North Korea’s threats regarding ‘The Interview,’ small theaters took action for free speech.

Just before New Year’s, I bought a membership from Bellingham, Washington’s Pickford Film Center. The plastic membership card comes with a few perks, but that’s not why I signed up. Normally it’s best to follow Groucho Marx’s sage advice and refuse to join any organization that would admit one as a member. However, this once I joined for patriotic reasons. No, that isn’t a punchline.

December brought one of the more humiliating cultural events in recent American history. Hackers who could be connected with the Communist dictatorship of North Korea stole data from and threatened Sony. They also threatened anyone who would have the effrontery to watch the movie studio’s new gross-out comedy “The Interview,” about a couple of bumbling television journalists whom the CIA asks to “take out” Kim Jong-un.

Hollywood caved in every way that it is possible to cave to this theoretical theatrical threat from an isolated pygmy kingdom. All five large movie chains canceled plans to show “The Interview.” Sony said it would not release the movie on Christmas as scheduled—or, potentially, ever. Execs in other studios refused to sign a petition circulated by George Clooney to get Sony’s back and support that freedom of expression they usually claim to hold dear.

The Bigs Bluster and Hide

This was George McFly-level cinematic cowardice. As we might expect from watching “Back to the Future,” it had ripple effects. Fox refused to distribute a planned Steve Carrell movie about North Korea, forcing its cancellation. The Texas-based Alamo Drafthouses said that if they couldn’t air “The Interview” on Christmas they would re-screen the 2004 puppet extravaganza “Team America: World Police,” which mocked former North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il. Paramount wouldn’t allow it, for fear of foreign hackers and U.S. trial lawyers if something violent happened at a theater.

Sony could still stream it online, of course, but that’s not quite the same thing, in terms of revenue or shared experience—and it would be subject to piracy on a massive scale.

Most Americans who paid any attention to this unfolding spectacle found it intolerable. They tried to find some way to register their disapproval. Without “The Interview” to watch, even to stream online, folks organized “Team America” watching parties and wrote about it on social media. Finally, President Obama, whose own FBI arrested the filmmaker of the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube video a few years ago to placate Islamist rioters, said in a press conference that Sony had “made a mistake” and ought to release the movie.

Sony said it would like to do just that, Mr. President. The only problem was, how? The movie chains had all refused to show “The Interview.” Suppose the president’s words could calm them and change their minds about spooling those reels. There was still a problem. The chains had already locked up all their screens with commitments to other movies for the Christmas release date. Sony could still stream it online, of course, but that’s not quite the same thing, in terms of revenue or shared experience—and it would be subject to piracy on a massive scale.

Small Theaters Stand Up

That was the point when the Pickford Film Center swooped in to help save the day. It, and about 300 other small independent theaters took stock of the risks and the controversy. They stood up and said, “Give us the movie. We will show it.”

Indie theaters showed it, and the crowds showed up.

So indie theaters showed it, and the crowds showed up. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the movie took in $3.3 million in its first six days of release. That may not sound like a lot, but this was on, at most, 331 screens in small auditoriums with lower ticket prices, fewer showings than usual in larger theaters, and next to zero advance notice.

Right-of-center folks have quarreled over how we should respond to threats on Sony’s film. In these cyber pages, Rebecca Cusey argued that while she could usually “take or leave” co-star/writer/director Seth Rogen’s films, that was not the right call this time. When thugs tells a “free people” that they aren’t allowed to watch something they had better “damn well watch it,” Cusey said.

Joe Carter raised a social conservative harrumph on the blog of the Acton Institute. “Freedom lovers,” Carter wrote, “don’t have an obligation to watch some lame raunchy comedy simply because it was threatened by terrorists associated with North Korea.” Rather, we ought to push for changes in American law so that opportunistic lawyers can’t hold any violence related to a movie against the theaters.

Free Minds and Markets Preserve Free Speech

While we were jaw-jawing about this, hundreds of small business owners and non-profit organizations charged in and provided public venues for hundreds of thousands of Americans to watch the movie. Many of these owners and workers at these theaters have quite left-of-center politics, but they proved willing to take a chance for freedom of speech.

Our indie theater had decided to show the film, she said, to support that very ‘American freedom to see whatever movie you want.’

That’s certainly the case with Pickford, which has free screenings of human rights documentaries, “non-GMO” popcorn, and special green handles on the toilets to conserve water. “This isn’t normally the sort of movie we show here,” a super perky female worker with thick black hipster glasses told the sold-out crowd Saturday night before awarding a coupon for free Mallard’s ice cream to one lucky moviegoer. They had decided to do so, she said, to support that very “American freedom to see whatever movie you want.”

Pickford and hundreds of theaters showed the film to sellout crowds without incident. This only proved what an empty threat the larger chains and Sony had caved to. Now the movie might find wider distribution, both in America and abroad. There’s even talk of air-dropping copies into North Korea, although the shortage of televisions there might be an obstacle.

Whether or not you think it’s a good idea to see “The Interview,” it was the Pickfords of this country that gave us the opportunity to go out and do so and laugh together, freely. I don’t know if free-speech-loving conservative Americans have a moral obligation to open their wallets for this, but it seemed altogether right and proper that this American do so.

Plus, as the lady at the counter told me as she was wrestling with the computer to process my membership and grousing that it must have been hacked by North Koreans, “Our popcorn has real butter.” Hard to argue with that.

Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.
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