The cyberterrorists, it seems, have won. Just 48 hours ago, Sony’s Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview was still on track to be released in thousands of US theaters on Christmas Day. But then hackers threatened a 9/11-like attack on theaters that screened the movies, and last night Sony officially canceled the movie’s release “in light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film.”
Hours later, the company added that “Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film,” including video-on-demand. Sony had been considering a premium VOD release—which would have been exactly the high-profile test case VOD so desperately needs—but cable operator Comcast had balked at that option due to the film’s “political sensitivity.”
But it doesn’t have to end this way. There is still a scenario for Sony to avoid a $100 million write-down and a demoralizing retreat in the face of terrorist threats: Sell The Interview to Netflix, which could then become a hero in the face of cyberbullying, and strike a blow against the hackers who have humiliated Hollywood.
Netflix has already taken steps to get into original feature films, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel and a four-picture deal with Adam Sandler. But nothing could make a bigger splash, or a more important statement, than swooping in and acquiring The Interview. Netflix has claimed that Hollywood’s current system is broken; this is its chance to fix it.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is already on Team Interview. He supported the film on Facebook last week, posting: “Say no to cyber intimidation and yes to outrageous humor. I’m buying 10 tickets to The Interview when it comes out.” Hey, how about buying the equivalent of several million tickets instead? Hastings is also a big fan of Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton: some of the hacked emails revealed that Hastings unsuccessfully tried to recruit Lynton to serve on Netflix’s board of directors. Wouldn’t The Interview make a terrific consolation prize?
After all, Netflix is already doing business with Sony, which is producing the streaming service’s eagerly-awaited Kyle Chandler drama Bloodline, set to premiere in March. In May, Netflix stuck a deal for streaming rights to Sony Animation films. And in 2013, Starz had to fend off a strong push from Netflix for the rights to Sony Pictures Entertainment movies through 2021.
Under the terms of that Starz contract, streaming rights for The Interview would go to Starz, which is one of many knots that Netflix and Sony would have to untangle. A Netflix deal for The Interview would be complicated and unprecedented—but so was the hack that started this whole thing in the first place.
Netflix, which doesn’t have a presence in Asia, is more protected from political fallout than the other multinational companies involved in this controversy. And the film’s marketing budget could be nonexistent. Instead, all of those celebs who decried Sony’s decision yesterday would suddenly become Netflix’s biggest cheerleaders, and the company would find itself with an army of enthusiastic—and free!—celebrity spokesmen, not to mention the invaluable free media coverage.
The company has long made a habit of rescuing discarded TV shows, including Arrested Development, The Killing, and Longmire, the canceled Western crime drama it picked up just last month from A&E. But now it could take things to the next level, and rescue a huge holiday movie.
Sony, meanwhile, could save face as well as money by not having to write down the cost of the film, while also keeping it at arm’s length. And millions of moviegoers, many of whom had no interest in or awareness of The Interview just a few days ago, would finally have the chance to see for themselves what all the fuss is about. It could result in Netflix’s biggest influx of subscribers yet.
That would be a dream scenario for Netflix—except, of course, for the possibility that making the deal would leave Netflix vulnerable to being hacked itself, which is the worst nightmare for a technology-intensive company so secretive it doesn’t even share ratings data with the creators of its own shows. But time and again, Netflix has proven itself to be fearless, a company that hasn’t hesitated to make big deals that have upended the entertainment industry.
Now it’s time for Netflix to step up to the plate again, stare down the hackers, and do what Sony and exhibitors would not: put The Interview in front of an audience. Make it happen, Hastings.
And even if Netflix can’t convince Sony to play ball, all is not lost: Team America: World Police is currently streaming on Netflix.