The prevailing (though likely wrong) theory behind Sony's recent hack-disaster is North Korean revenge, a national strike against the studio for its movie depiction of Kim Jong Un's assassination. And according to leaked emails obtained by Gawker, Sony executives were worried about the flick even before they got hacked.
A previous report by Bloomberg said Sony execs altered the gory finale of The Interview, toning down the extent to which Kim Jong Un's head is exploded and set aflame. But the movie faced more problems than just Supreme Leader's immolation scene—Sony executives and distribution partners around the world were worried that the movie was too offensive, "desperately unfunny," and worst of all, starred James Franco.
Emails sent from UK Sony Pictures exec Peter Taylor to president of Sony Pictures Releasing International Steven O'Dell are particularly harsh, describing the comedy as a "misfire," "unfunny and repetitive," with "a level of realistic violence that would be shocking in a horror movie." Taylor holds one of the film's co-stars in particularly low regard: "James Franco proves once again that irritation is his strong suit which is a shame because the character could have been appealing and funny out of his hands."
In other words: Not the kind of movie you want to risk an international incident over.
The truth is, Sony's been worried about this for a long time. The company was so concerned about angering China that Nigel Clark, the head of international marketing, emailed a script of the movie to the general manager of SPE China, Li Chow, back in December 2013. Chow writes that "it is unlikely that Sony will be hurt by making the film" but suggests changing "the part... when they sneak into China to get into N. Korea":
I read the script and it is difficult to say whether the government will object. In times when there is no political tension in the region, it would not be a problem. Films that had run into problems are because China is directly involved. In recent years, China seems to have distanced itself from N. Korea and it is unlikely that Sony will be hurt by making the film. Having said that, the part that would need to be changed is when they sneak into China to get into N. Korea because this will surely anger China. There are, of course, always risks involved because the government is reactionary and therefore, unpredictable.
Best regards, Li
The movie was made—but a marketing PDF from October betrays the studio's uneasiness with the film, suggesting everyone stay away from its very obvious (and very bloody, heavy handed political themes):
For a movie that is literally about two Americans assassinating a foreign leader, that seems like an understatement. The studio is afraid to even let too many people know about the film's premise:
Sony's international distribution partners—who saw the movie at a screening in London in June—show a lot of uncertainty that anyone, anyone in the world, will enjoy this movie.
In the Netherlands, distributors worried about its "limited potential" thanks to an "unbalanced" "execution":
"The movie does start with a very strong opening scene with Eminem coming out and the plot of the producer and the talkshow host wanting to interview the North Korean dictator, but getting dragged into a murder conspiracy is for sure promising, but the execution is unbalanced at best and in the final action packed scenes, the movie spins completely out of control, unfortunately also making use of such gory violence that the age rating spikes to 16, hence limiting the audience from the start. The movie does have some funny moments, but all in all we feel that the movie has a limited potential in the Netherlands"
South Korea, understandably, wants nothing to do with the movie and its "strange North Korean accent," thanks in part to "the political issue about North Korea":
Although this is a fun and unique comedy film with good performance by main talents, all my staff requested NRP.
Because main talents are still weak to appeal, vulnerable genre to our market and anticipated +18.
Above all, it make a North Korean head too much caricature and strange North Korean accent is not acceptable to our audience.
Also there would be a big potential to produce the political issue about North Korea as well.
However, depending on the trend and phenomenon of social and political issues after openings in US and other major territories,
we can review our release plan again.
France thinks that French moviegoers will be turned off by the "facts improbability"—and also because French people don't think Rogen is funny:
The concept is crazy and fun, absurd in a good way, but for the French audience, I'm afraid they are going too far in the facts improbability. Unfortunately, Seth Rogen's humor doesn't really translate here, but maybe the release of neighbors in August will help to change French's opinion.
Taiwan is blunt: "We don't find it entertaining at all." The one bright spot in a movie that has "Seth Rogen's written all over it" is the presence song by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou—though "all the rest seems to be only about selling Katy Perry songs:
We've just watched THE INTERVIEW, and to be very honest, we are a bit disappointed and don't think the film stands a chance in our market.
The concept of THE DICTATOR meeting ARGO may sound fun, but probably due to culture difference, we don't find it entertaining at all. Not to mention our audience doesn't react well to jokes about foreign politics. And we also don't understand why it needs to get so violent in the end, which should get the film an R-18 rating here.
THE INTERVIEW does have Seth Rogen's written all over it. He's not afraid of making fun of hetero/homo sexuality, drugs, politics, and even his own nudity. And this one again has Seth's favorite situational theme, about how true "bromance" can only be revealed at the time they drag each other into deep ShXt : ) The lines seem to be written based on Seth Rogen and James Franco, which reminds us a lot of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Unfortunately it is the humor our audience does not embrace so much. The only nice surprise was hearing Jay Chou's song in the background when Seth visiting China in the film, all the rest seems to be only about selling Katy Perry songs.
The Interview currently carries a 40% "fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes (that's awful), and its stars have gone silent to the press since the movie's premiere over the weekend. If Sony's data breach really is an act of North Korean reprisal, it's hard to imagine a movie less worth getting hacked over.
But there's some good news: at least one sophisticated demographic with highbrow taste thinks Sony's got a hit on their hands: