Surely by now you’ve heard all about the Seth Rogen/James Franco film The Interview, the hacking of Sony Pictures that lead to personal e-mail leaks (including some that showed Marvel was in talks to get Spider-Man into Captain America: Civil War), and how the film was ultimately scrapped when threats were made against exhibitors that screened it. Looking past the awful job the media has done “covering” this story, the whole situation is an unfortunate tale and one that I can’t help but throw my two cents in on. While I do understand the tough position theatre owners were put in — especially having worked at a movie theatre for 12 years and experiencing the aftermath of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado — to say I’m disappointed in their decision and the decision of Sony is an understatement.
This leads to the inevitable question: What does all this have to do with Disney? A lot, actually. Aside from the coincidence that Randall Parks who portrayed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in The Interview will star in the ABC midseason sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” or that any perceived threat to cinemas playing The Interview over the Christmas weekend could have potentially kept customers away thus hurting Disney’s release of Into the Woods, the truth is that a similar situation could imaginably happen at The Walt Disney Company. In fact, while terrorists have never (to my knowledge) been involved in creative decisions, Disney has certainly had a history of willingly censoring their films or bowing to political pressure.
In 2004, Disney declined to distribute controversial director Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 which was produced by the studio’s Miramax imprint. The movie, which was critical of President George W. Bush and his handling of the September 11th attacks, was rumored to be a headache for Disney… or so Moore famously claimed. According to his story, Disney was worried about the retaliatory tax implications Walt Disney World might face if the studio released a film bashing the President whose brother, Jeb Bush, was the governor of Florida at the time.
Whether this was the reason or not, Disney said they had made a decision to pass on the film months earlier and that Moore as well as producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein were making it look like an 11th hour blink in order to drum up publicity. In the end, The Weinstein’s teamed up with Lionsgate to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11, which saw success in its opening week. Soon later the Weinsteins would leave Disney/Miramax to grow their newly created (and cleverly named) studio, The Weinstein Company.
Perhaps the most notable case of censorship for Disney fans is Song of the South. Best known for its portrayal in Splash Mountain and the classic “Zip-A-Doo-Dah” tune, the 1946 film has been deemed racist and thus remains intentionally difficult to find in America. According to Wikipedia (so take this for what it’s worth) late film critic Roger Ebert supported the film not being available because of Disney’s place in the hearts of impressionable children.
As Ebert points out, Disney does have a unique responsibility that goes beyond just brand management. This predicament often leads to groans from the uninitiated. Most recently, the aforementioned Into the Woods — which is based on the Steven Sondheim stage show — was criticized for its “sanitation” of the original work. Some of the Broadway production’s undertones have been toned down while some darker or more inappropriate plot points have been altered to make a family friendly PG rated musical. When Sondheim first spoke of these changes, the theatre community was not too pleased, but it’s important to note that these changes were all supervised by Sondheim himself. In fact, I’d classify this case not as censorship but compromise.
The same type of compromise could have come in handy in 1997 when Touchstone released Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Considering that the film has enjoyed hundreds of airings on ABC Family (which even produced a made-for-TV sequel) you may be surprised to know that the film carries an R rating due to one scene where the infamous f-bomb makes more than one appearance. While it now enjoys success as a cult classic, it stands to reason that a foul-mouth thesaurus could have lead to a more successful theatrical run from the start.
It’s one thing to compromise with producers, studio heads and parent companies but it’s quite another to compromise with terrorists. What Sony did this week can’t even really be considered compromise as they essentially bowed to every demand made by the attackers.
What’s interesting is that the closest comparison you could make between Disney’s history and the situation surrounding The Interview are the propaganda cartoons Disney produced during World War II. These shorts directly criticized Japan and Germany presumably in a similar fashion to how The Interview skewers North Korea. They also rallied Americans and reminded them what freedoms we were fighting for.
It seems that era has ended. Much like Captain America learned after awaking from from his 70 year slumber, our modern society is far too willing to sacrifice freedom for security. In the case of The Interview and the threats that stemmed from its existence, our physical security was probably never even in real danger. However, with the precedent set by pulling a film to appease terrorists, our freedom of expression now is.
Editor’s Note: At press time the story referenced in the piece was still developing . The essay reflects views based on information available as of December 17, 2014.
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Kyle is a writer living in Springfield, MO. His deep love of Disney and other pop culture finds its way into his stories, scripts, and tweets. His first book “The E-Ticket Life: Stories, Essays, and Lessons Learned from My Decidedly Disney Travels” is available in paperback and for Kindle. http://amzn.to/1CStAhV