PR Perspectives: Was Sony’s “Interview” Fiasco the World’s Greatest Publicity Stunt?

By Gary Frisch, Founder and President, Swordfish Communications

Maybe Sony Pictures knew something the rest of us didn’t.

In putting The Interview into limited theatrical release, and issuing it on major video streaming platforms, Sony has satisfied a hue and cry from the American public, celebrities of all stripes and even President Obama to stand up to the computer-hacking, freedom-threatening Commies from North Korea.

Or was the studio driven purely by self-interest?

There’s no shame in that. In the days after the company announced it was cancelling the movie’s release, much was written suggesting that a corporation is not obligated to act in the interest of its country or, in this case, its host nation. While Obama’s statement that the studio should’ve spoken to his administration before making any decisions made for a good sound bite, the company felt no fiduciary or even moral responsibility to do so. Some even said Obama’s remarks themselves smacked of another form of censorship, despite the fact that no one from the government actually asked for a sit-down.

While I (and many others) criticized Sony for pulling the movie in the first place, there was some basis of understanding for the decision. The major theater chains initially refused to show it, severely limiting distribution and potential profit. These cinemas were thinking about the safety of their patrons as well as their own well-being. The theater involved in the Aurora, Colorado shootings—an event with no precedent and no warning—is mired in lawsuits. Just imagine how the subpoenas would fly if an incident occurred after a nationally reported threat to moviegoers?

Maybe Sony feared reprisals from the hackers in the form of more embarrassing or costly information leaks. That’s certainly a concern just about every CEO could empathize with.

Let’s take a look at what changed. Less than one week later, two art house theaters in Austin and Atlanta blazed the trail and announced they’d defy censorship and screen the movie. Several chains fell into lockstep, resulting in some 330 theaters premiering The Interview on Christmas Day. If this is all as it appeared to be, I give them lots of credit. Security was ratcheted up, and several TV stations showed uniformed police stationed outside of theaters. The theater owners’ actions made a statement, and let Sony make one too, but statements alone don’t help studios recoup their investment. 

To that end, and perhaps emboldened by the turn of events, Sony put a cherry on top by offering the film on Google Play, YouTube and Xbox Live for a reasonable $5.99.

So, the world’s most talked-about movie—the most controversial artistic work since The Passion of the Christ, the movie that spawned weeks’ worth of headlines, gossip columnist fodder and geopolitical posturing—was, in fact, available on the appointed date (for a cost). All pretty lofty for a movie starring the guys form Pineapple Express and This is the End.

Had Sony stuck to its guns and completely buried The Interview, the rationale from the studio and the theater chains might have at least mollified the patriotic freedom-of-speechers including myself who called for some corporate and, by extension, national backbone against a despot with a bad haircut and his cyber-minions. But by reversing course less than one week later, the entertainment titan came off as waffling or succumbing to public opinion. And that makes it look like Sony wasn’t sure of its own convictions in the first place.

On the other hand, maybe Sony knew something we didn’t, that The Interview was a run-of-the-mill comedy that might have come and gone in a week or two given a traditional national release. Maybe this was all a clever and meticulously contrived publicity stunt, relying on the predictable, reactionary nature of a much-reviled totalitarian regime. And a severely limited release meant no advance, potentially negative reviews.

The actions of Sony and its (complicit?) distribution network assured peak excitement to see it, and through this weekend, with a recently expanded release, The Interview has earned about $5.06 million in theaters and over $15 million online, with additional revenue sure to come from international release, DVD and last week’s release on video on demand. Theatergoers that first holiday weekend no doubt felt like they were on the front lines of a propaganda war; viewers snug in front of their big screen TVs were the Voice of America, spitting in the face of Kim Jong-un and (spoiler alert) laughing at his fictional demise, safe from any retribution since they’re not corporations and weren’t in a public venue. Never again will watching a movie be so cathartic, and patriotic.

The irony is, even if Sony was truthful throughout this whole affair, and was responding to a fluid, fragile situation in a way it thought would save face and help defray its financial investment, the public today is too educated and too skeptical to see this event as anything but a savvy PR move. And if it’s somehow proven that it was, then, like a smoking gun tying Governor Chris Christie to BridgeGate, that would make things much worse for the studio. 

But Sony’s true intentions for The Interview may never be known—that is, unless the emails from its public relations and marketing departments are leaked by the hackers.

 

Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. Visit Swordfish online at www.swordfishcomm.com.

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