Category Archives: Industry Analysis

“Birds of Prey” Box Office Failure is Make Believe

Movie and box office websites have fallen all over themselves to report the failure that is “Birds of Prey”. The Harley Quinn superhero movie only made $33 million in its opening weekend! What if I told you this assessment of its failure is inaccurate? What if I told you there was a male-driven action film with the same budget and same box office performance that came out at the same time of year? Would you be surprised that it was lauded as a box office success and got two sequels?

“BIRDS OF PREY” VS. “KINGSMAN”

Bear with me while we get into some numbers. The budget for “Birds of Prey” is variously reported as between $75 million and $97.1 million. The two most reliable box office reporting sites measure it as $82 million (The Numbers) and $84.5 million (Box Office Mojo). We’ll go with these figures, but also talk about the most expensive estimate later.

The budget for “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was $81 million. It was a male-driven, niche action movie that came out in 2014 and was widely applauded for its surprise performance.

As mentioned, the opening weekend for “Birds of Prey” was $33 million. The opening weekend for “Kingsman: The Secret Service” was $36.2 million.

Well, what about international box office, outside the U.S.? “Kingsman” earned about $53 million overseas in its opening weekend. “Birds of Prey” earned just over $48 million in its opening weekend.

It’s notable to point out that “Birds of Prey” counts its totals without a China opening. China takes an outlandish cut of box office earnings made by foreign films, which account for $22.5 million of the “Kingsman” opening and thus far $0 of the “Birds of Prey” opening. This means that in terms of earning profit, they performed pretty equally and “Birds of Prey” may have even had the better opening weekend abroad.

You have two movies that cost essentially the same, and earned essentially the same opening weekend, at essentially the same time of year. “Kingsman” was widely reported as a rousing success. “Birds of Prey” is being widely reported as an abject failure.

PERFORMANCE IN THE DCEU

But maybe we should compare “Birds of Prey” to other DC superhero franchises. At about $84 million, “Birds of Prey” has just over a third the production budget of 2013’s “Man of Steel”. It has a third the budget of “Batman v Superman”. It has less than half the budget of “Suicide Squad”. It has just over one-fourth of the budget of “Justice League”.

(Even the higher $97.1 million budget estimate reported by Screen Rant means that “Birds of Prey” would be the second least expensive DC Extended Universe movie just behind “Shazam!”)

Advertising budgets aren’t made public, but they are estimated at 1-1.5x the cost of the production budget. Advertising and production in total typically equals between 2-2.5x the production budget alone.

“Man of Steel” made $291 million domestic off a $225 million budget. A $668 million worldwide total (including domestic) means it likely eked out a profit in the theaters after advertising is accounted for…just not that much of one. It got a $250 million sequel.

“Justice League” never even matched its budget. When it came out in 2017, the $300 million film made only $229 million in the U.S. At a $657.9 million worldwide total, it likely didn’t even make up its outlandish advertising budget.

After just two weeks in release, “Birds of Prey” has made $61.7 million domestic and a $145 million worldwide total. It’s on track to make up its production budget domestically, and to more than turn a profit after advertising once international takes are added. That’s the definition of a success, and it already out-paces other DCEU films.

Of course there are DC films that have performed better: “Aquaman”, “Wonder Woman”, and “Shazam!” are the best performing films the DCEU has. The point is, there are more DC films that have performed equally or far worse.

FEBRUARY BOX OFFICE IS TERRIBLE

But “Birds of Prey” came out in February, the same month as “Black Panther”! That means something for some reason, right?

February is actually one of the worst months in terms of box office, and that’s not even talking about being a shorter month. Simply looking at weekend openings, only two films have ever opened above $100 million in February. Only 11 films have ever had an opening weekend above $50 million in February.

An opening of $33 million is directly in line with other films of this budget. Beyond that, the film had a great second weekend hold, only dropping 48.2%. In fact, it joins “Aquaman” and “Wonder Woman” as the only DCEU films not to have dropped more than 50% in their second weekends.

Why we’re suddenly pretending it’s a surprise or mystery is…well, the reason’s obvious but let’s get to that in a second.

“BIRDS OF PREY” VS. “FORD V FERRARI

As Comic Book points out, another close comparison to “Birds of Prey” is “Ford v Ferrari”, the Matt Damon-Christian Bale Oscar-bait film that opened at $31.5 million domestic. Comic Book points out that this was a $97.6 million film, just out-pacing even the highest budget estimate for “Birds of Prey”. Yet it was celebrated as a success with a lower, $31.5 million opening. With the benefit of Thanksgiving, the holiday break, New Years, and extending its Oscar run, it amassed a grand total of $117 million domestic and $224 million worldwide.

At $145 million worldwide in just two weeks, “Birds of Prey” is guaranteed to surpass the Oscar-bait racing movie. Yet despite better performance on either a slightly or significantly lesser budget, “Birds of Prey” is defined as the failure and “Ford v Ferrari” as a success.

What makes “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” different from similarly performing films? It’s written by, directed by, and stars women.

“Kingsman” is a movie about men that uses women as rewards. It’s co-written by Jane Goldman, but the women in the film are fetishized, need to be saved, and one is presented as an unfeeling sidekick.

Comic Book points out “Ford v Ferrari” is a film written by, directed by, and starring men. These films get a pass when they perform just like “Birds of Prey” did. They’re hailed nonetheless as successes.

That films like this would perform almost the exact same – or worse than – “Birds of Prey” and yet receive the exact opposite narrative assessing that performance is a double-standard, plain and simple.

I’d go even further and say that while progress has been made, there’s also a misogynist bridgehead that’s taking shape in criticism due to 4chan style brigading of review sites. The numbers that get reported about box office are accurate. The narratives derived from them aren’t. They’re neither based on accuracy nor consistency, and they’re too often influenced by what narrative will frenzy male followers into perceiving they’re victims of women and diversity.

As Harley Quinn reminds us, “Behind every successful man is a badass broad”. She just doesn’t get the credit for doing more with less.

Read my review for “Birds of Prey” right here.

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Anti-Trust in Faith: Why Sony Needs to Play Hardball with Spider-Man

by Gabriel Valdez

Sony is playing hardball with Disney over the next “Spider-Man” movie. Will they still share production of the next movie and allow the character to remain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Or will the character revert to Sony and once again go solo in their own movie? The more important question might be why Sony is digging in its heels at this moment.

Disney’s Dominance

Chances are probably good that the two will figure out a deal. Yet the impasse reveals something more core about how studios need to begin interacting with Disney. Disney was already the most successful studio before its purchase of Fox. Now, it’s unquestionably the most dominant studio in the field.

Buena Vista is the releasing arm of Disney. According to Box Office Mojo, it’s controlled 36.5% of domestic studio market share thus far in 2019. That represents $2.79 billion.

The next closest studio is Universal at 13.9%. That represents $1.06 billion. And that’s before Disney really gets a chance to push any of their Fox properties onto the calendar.

Buena Vista has hovered around 20-26% market share for years, but the last time another studio came first was Universal in 2015.

This informs why Disney has been pushing so much material out. Good, bad, it doesn’t matter so long as they’re releasing an event film regularly.

Calendar Control

A big part of what Disney’s doing is trying to choke out the calendar. Movies only tend to have extremely large openings during certain times of year – mainly the extended summer and holidays. The fewer dates available for other studios to get event films in, the worse a situation those other studios face and the more their properties are de-valued.

It doesn’t matter so much to Disney if a movie’s successful or not. They can weather a bad opening, such as the one for “Solo”. They’ll still be fine, and the franchise as a whole will still be fine. It matters that they can control the calendar and deny dates to other films. A major “Avengers” or “Star Wars” film can block other movies opening big for three weeks. Even a minor MCU film can scare off other studios for a two-week block.

The fewer good dates available for event movies, and the more other studios fail to launch their own franchises. Yet to do this, Disney needs franchises. They need new material constantly churning out of the MCU, “Star Wars”, and their live-action remakes of cartoon classics to be able to take up those dates. They often reserve them years ahead of time. This still isn’t enough to sustain Disney blocking all these dates out indefinitely. That’s a major reason it’s in other studios’ interests to play hardball with Disney about sharing or selling any properties.

Disney Needs Franchise Fuel

Disney still needs more fuel – more franchises. Sony and other studios are fully aware of this, and they own or have the rights to those franchises. The only way non-Disney studios can keep their ability to stake out dates in the calendar is to retain these franchises while denying them to Disney. The deal has to be much sweeter for a studio like Sony to essentially sabotage access to event dates in the future.

This approach by Disney is reminiscent of classic monopolistic behavior. Now, it’s important to point out that Disney is not a monopoly. It is striving to become one, or as close to one as it can get, and to do that requires monopolistic practices.

Monopolies don’t start exercising monopolistic strategies only after becoming monopolies. They use them in order to become monopolies in the first place. They often try to undercut a competitor in one area, and only once that competitor is driven out of that area, will they raise their prices.

This isn’t selling oil in 1890 Ohio, though. Movies are released nationally, and theater chains charge the same regardless of which studio releases a movie. How exactly is Disney able to make their approach most effective?

Blocking Competitors

Disney has done this in an even more direct way. They’ve made theater chains sign ridiculous contracts – if they want to carry a large Disney movie like an “Avengers” or “Star Wars” release, they have to make agreements to show them on their largest screens for four weeks straight. In some cases, theaters have even been required to show more minor Disney films later in the year on a set number of screens for a set number of weeks. Both factors directly block the number and quality of screens available to other studios’ releases at key dates.

They’re also poisonous to smaller theaters that only have a few screens. It means that these theaters will often be blocked a month from showing any other movies if they want access to any Disney event films. Since another major release from another studio is likely within two-to-four weeks, it means that it’s going to be blocked from those small theaters entirely. Often, the only way for small theaters to change the films they’re showing is to carry whatever the next Disney event film is – with a similarly restrictive contract. This can create a cycle where smaller theaters are essentially locked into only showing Disney movies for months at a time.

This means that having more properties to fill those dates doesn’t just lock in more of the calendar for Disney. More to the point, it blocks those dates from other studios. More franchises means more large releases to force more imbalanced contracts with theater chains and to strong-arm smaller theaters. That means that Disney can deny screens to the releases of other studios. Even a flop can be contractually required to take up screens for four weeks.

Digging in Their Heels

This is what forms the context for Sony – and when their time comes, other studios – being very strict about negotiating favorable deals with Disney. The more franchises they allow Disney to have, the more event dates Disney controls. The more event dates Disney controls, the more screens they can force theaters to block from other studios’ releases – sometimes just for that event release, but sometimes by including even more minor films that take up screens on certain major release dates.

Sony is not just negotiating a favorable “Spider-Man” deal. They are also effectively negotiating the access their own films will have to the calendar in the future.

Of course it’s a goal for their films to make money. Of course it’s a goal for Disney to release on good dates. The best way to look at Disney right now, however, is to understand that their primary goal is to deny dates and screens to other studios’ films.

This is why they’re pushing so much material out the door. Regardless as to whether there’s a reason to make certain films, or even if some of them are record flops, each one can deny dates and screens to other studios for up to a month’s time. That’s good for Disney. It de-values the properties they’d seek to buy from other studios in order to further strong-arm theaters and further control and block the calendar.

What Can Be Done?

Neither Sony nor theater chains are heroes to Disney’s villain in this. They each have their own godawful business practices. Disney’s just the one that got there before the others, but it still makes sense for the others to dig their heels in before they can’t anymore.

It’s also difficult to figure out how to combat this. I’m going to be in theaters for “Black Panther 2” and “The Rise of Skywalker”. Disney’s making a decent amount of progressive event films and doing a better (though still far from perfect) job with women leads and actors and directors of color than many. I want to support those films, and at the same time not see Disney increasingly take over the industry.

The best answer I can give is that the key rests in greater regulation. Media and entertainment laws have become more and more de-regulated in the U.S. on endless fronts. In particular, the Paramount Consent Decrees need to be extended to Disney (and other players like Amazon). Aggressive enforcement of the decrees has all but evaporated. As in so many areas today, it needs to come back.

The Most Beautiful Primary

by Gabriel Valdez

Politics can be beautiful, damn it.

This beauty hides behind statistics and demographics and any number of political sciences that begin to make a voter feel inhuman.

So ignore those things for a minute. Ask what the philosophies being discussed really represent.

Are racial, gender, and community injustices root causes? Do they arise naturally, and then make the implementation of economic injustices necessary for the survival of those root causes? This would be the view of social injustice that Sen. Hillary Clinton champions.

Or is economic injustice the root cause that creates racial, gender, and community injustices, and uses the divisiveness of these as tools that feed the root cause of class indifference? This would be the view of social injustice that Sen. Bernie Sanders champions.

In other words, are racism, gender, and community bias something natural that we have to socially evolve away from in conscious ways in order to overcome? Is Clinton right?

Or are those things unnatural social constructs that are simply created and then preyed upon by economic injustice for its continuation? Is Sanders right?

That seems to be how the Democratic primary is breaking down. What are the real causes? What are the symptoms that distract us from them?

I fall squarely in the Clinton camp. Sociological studies have shown us that our biases are natural inclinations. That hardly justifies them. As a society, we’ve overcome many other natural inclinations that we deemed unwanted in order to continue existing as a healthy civilization. We consciously change our lives all the time, individually and as a society, in order to make our existences and interactions healthier.

(I mean, you’re reading this on a computer or phone that you got because it increases your efficiency at doing a number of daily tasks. We’ve already stepped irreversibly down the transhumanist path of social evolution, and we barely noticed.)

Either way, at least this dichotomy in thinking is at the core of the Democratic debate. Let’s bring demographics back into the discussion. You can see philosophy even in how groups of people lean one way or the other:

Those who’ve suffered racial injustice (people of color), gender injustice (older women), and community injustice (urban and failing industrial communities) to a greater extent than economic injustice tend to side with Clinton.

Those who’ve suffered economic injustice (young voters, low-income white voters, rural and current industrial communities) to a greater extent than racial, gender, or community injustice tend to side with Sanders.

Both candidates’ messages are evolving geographically as primary season continues, as they always do. But from the beginning, the fight for support has been over those who have been victimized most by the cross-section of these two separate philosophies of injustice:

Young voters of color have suffered the effects of severe racial injustice and the long-lasting economic impacts of the Great Recession.

Young women voters have suffered the effects of both aggressive gender injustice and those same economic impacts of the Great Recession.

And low-income white voters have suffered both the abandonment of the infrastructure of their communities and the disappearance of a reliable industrial economy.

These are the voters most “at play” for a reason, because they fall squarely between two philosophies of how to fix the world. And that they are being valued and spoken to and planned around is beautiful. It may be discussed in demographics and statistics and pop political science talking points, but the discussion itself – at its root – is about the construction of our society from the ground up.

I can’t remember anything like it in politics, anything that strikes so far down to the philosophical core of how societies choose to evolve. The arguments we have and the passion behind those arguments are very real and very crucial – these are not philosophies that share much middle ground, but they are philosophies that can and must be brought closer together.

That the Democratic primary is a discussion of social evolution is in itself a striking moment. Contrasting philosophies of social evolution are usually not the core around which any election evolves in this country, at least not since the Civil Rights movement and UFW agricultural strikes. While this primary is a very ugly one, when you can take a step back and boil down what’s really being discussed, it also might be the most beautiful one.

 

Trumpalytics: How We Help Donald Trump Metagame Toward Power

by Gabriel Valdez

Hi, Donald Trump! Hi, real poll analytics! Why don’t I ever see you in the same room anymore? Are you secretly the same person?

Trump’s support has repeatedly hit a ceiling of about 35% in Republican polls, right? A full third of Republicans are shouting, “Yay, racism!” From the rest of the Republican field, it seems more like a tepid, “Er, go…go racism, I think. Aren’t we normally more subtle about this?” Which really puts Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in some difficult positions. It should do the same to Ben Carson, but this cycle’s Rick Santorum 2012 is destined to one day become Rick Santorum 2016.

So…America is obsessed with Trump, right? Everyone’s going to vote for him and he’ll win all 50 states, and ban everything but golf and gambling, right?

Here’s the thing. Trump’s support has hit a ceiling of about 35%, and that’s of registered Republican voters. Registered Republicans make up only about 25% of voters. Registered Democrats make up a bit over 30%, and the rest are independent.

Why hasn’t Trump been able to catapult himself over that ceiling of 35% among Republicans? Because of his ridiculous negatives. His unfavorable rating consistently hovers near 60%. We’re talking about a candidate who might not even be able to win the presidency in an up-down referendum wherein he’s the only candidate.

Furthermore, if you look at the polls being made of Republicans thus far in the cycle, most of them are of any adult or registered Republican. Most of them are internet polls. Most of them are not of the most accurate metric polling can offer: likely voters in live phone polls. These are voters who vote regularly, and Trump’s support among them has been lower by anywhere from 6-10 percentage points throughout most of the campaign.

Why avoid live polling of likely voters when it’s the most statistically accurate metric? Because people click on Trump. I’ll click on him, you’ll click on him, we’ll all click on Trump just to see what crazy, racist, deport-my-born-and-bred-U.S.-citizen-ass bullshit he comes up with next. We click on that bastard like there’s no tomorrow, and that means more ad money for the sites being clicked on. We’ll hang on channels showing him, and that means higher ratings for the networks being watched.

Among likely voters in live phone polls, Trump has never crested 28%. Despite little opposition, his ceiling is fairly established. Why would he struggle to increase that number when other candidates who are polling lower wouldn’t? They aren’t saddled with his negatives. As the Republican field narrows, candidates like Rubio and Cruz (or even dark horses like John Kasich and Chris Christie) will absorb far more of the voters freed up when other candidates drop out.

That doesn’t mean Trump can’t win the GOP primary if the Republican field fails to winnow down. It does mean that, in order to win, he needs most of the 14 candidates still in the race to stay in the race without giving ground through most of the primary cycle. There’s a better chance of that than in most primary elections, but it would still be fairly unprecedented.

Why should all these metrics matter? If Trump is hammering out a maximum of 28% of Republican voters, and Republican voters make up 25% of all voters, that means Trump is polling a whopping…drum roll, please…7% of likely voters. Ooh.

We all wonder why polls are so inaccurate. They really aren’t, if you know which ones to pay attention to and how to read them. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have no interest in presenting them accurately, giving context, or teaching people how they work. They spit out statistics, no matter how misrepresented, so that others will repeat them ad nauseum. In recent years, there are fewer and fewer independent pollsters. Most now have a patron, and that patron is always in the form of a news network, a newspaper, a think tank, or a PAC (political action committee). The shape of the kinds of polls we take has changed according to what these patrons need to drive their story lines. That’s how we end up with months of coverage about future presidents Herman Cain, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Santorum.

These organizations have an interest in creating the most exciting story lines, the ones that’ll make you click on their sites, change to their channels, or share an interview that goes off the rails on YouTube.

Yes, we should continue protesting the ugly things Trump says. What he says encourages and endorses hate crimes, racial violence, and sexual violence. We need to speak out against it, but not just in regards to Trump. What much of the Republican field says encourages these same things.

But we shouldn’t freak out, and we shouldn’t buy into much of the information being sold us about the shape of this election. We should educate ourselves about polls. If you post a news story about a poll, have you clicked on that poll and actually looked at the questions being asked? Do you know if a poll’s questions are worded in a leading manner? Do you know how the poll was taken – online, automated phone, live phone. Was it of all adults who responded, registered voters, or likely voters? Was a particular demographic relied upon to supply answers? Is the sample size even realistically viable? Chances are, you don’t know any of those things when you post a poll, so why are we posting them as if they’re facts?

We’re so quick to post articles about how Americans are getting less education, about how we’re understanding less and less by generation, about how facts are becoming more malleable than they once were, about how specific groups of people are being less represented in our history books. Polls and the story lines created off them are all this in a nutshell, but we post them as if they are fact. We need to stop thinking that we are immune to understanding less and relying on fact less. We have our blind spots, and we succumb to them just as much as a Trump voter might.

We are no better, and we are no worse, but we can’t keep posting these kinds of things without understanding them, and then pretending they’re real representations of how this country thinks. That doesn’t just feed into the networks’ narratives, it feeds into the narratives of people like Trump. It feeds into the narratives that give him more air time, that lets him cause more damage, and that feeds his campaign.

If there’s one success in Trump’s campaign, it’s that he’s the only candidate who understands this. This is the metagame Trump plays, and this is how we feed it. By pretending he’s a front-runner, he becomes more viable in the minds of voters as a front-runner. By pretending the things he has to say, good or bad, are worth listening to, the things he says become more interesting in the minds of voters. By pretending that he’s a serious politician, he becomes a serious politician. The emperor has no clothes, but we are all so convinced he does that we share it as fact, as something impending, as a main attraction instead of a side show.

Without understanding the nature of the stories we post, all we do is drive Trump’s most advantageous narrative – that he is a serious candidate. We’ve done it enough that we’ve made it true, and by doing so, we’ve aided his campaign.

We can oppose the things he says without being afraid of him, without treating him seriously. I’ve written a good amount on polls and how we read them. People always ask, “Why does it matter, they’re just polls?”

Because we share them as fact and treat their realities as fact without bothering to understand them. That makes their realities our own. That means our political reality is now one that helps Trump, even when we oppose him.

The Secret Best Movie Playing Last Weekend

Back to the Future awkward

by Gabriel Valdez

I have a secret. Most of you won’t know what the best movie playing this last weekend was. I’ll give you a hint: it features binoculars.

What do you see on a weekend where your choices at the movie theater are limited between Kinda Hunger Games: Divergasurgent, Sean Penn experiencing a three-quarter life crisis, and “the best horror movie in years” is only playing at a handful of select locations hours from where you live? You see something old.

The best movie in theaters this past weekend was Rear Window. No, they didn’t remake it. They re-featured it. Not so long ago, movie theaters had to possess the physical reels in order to play a movie, meaning a set of reels (often scratched and worn thin from use) could only be in one location at a time. Classic films “toured,” which made tracking down old films on the big screen nearly impossible.

Now, remastered and restored versions of old films can be digitally downloaded directly to individual projection booths, meaning a single, clean copy of a classic movie can be shown on thousands of screens at once. And if you think, “I can just watch that on my laptop,” trust me – seeing a classic movie on the big screen still feels special.

Rear Window

My two favorite experiences seeing classic movies on the big-screen are as different as can be. The epic to end all movie epics, Lawrence of Arabia, was meant to be watched on as large a screen as possible. It was meant to tower over you, lose you in its desert, capture you in the energy behind Peter O’Toole’s masterful performance. Watch it on TV or on the computer? Fine. Watch it 40 feet high? Something else entirely.

The other was a surprise: Back to the Future. It’s a film we’re used to watching and laughing at with a handful of friends in our own home, but when 200 others are laughing at all the classic lines as well, you don’t just appreciate the movie, you feel its magic all over again as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Movies change when you see them on the big screen. They become something more, not afternoon fodder when we can’t find anything better to do on a lazy weekend, but whole events that transport you into the past and re-introduce your favorite movie moments to you.

I hate to select out one company, but unless you live in a city with an Alamo Drafthouse or a very devoted independent movie theater scene (Portland, Oregon kills it on this front), you’re going to be relying on Fathom Events. If you recognize the name, it’s because they feature opera, stand-up, and fight nights in hundreds of movie theaters across the country every week.

What a lot of people forget is that their mainstay is a classic cinema series they’ve teamed up with Turner Classic Movies to select. That’s how Rear Window was shown on hundreds of screens across the country this past weekend. If you live within driving distance of two or more chain theaters, chances are you could have caught it. In fact, you still can – Rear Window plays again on the 25th. Most theaters play it twice – during the day and in the evening.

If that’s not your cup of tea, they’re featuring The Breakfast Club on March 26 and 31, and if Breakfast Club isn’t your cup of tea, then I don’t know if we can be friends.

The Breakfast Club movie image

Next month The Sound of Music and Friday go up. Previous features have included Gone With the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, A Streetcar Named Desire, Frankenstein, and The Wizard of Oz, among many others.

Now, not every one of these features is equal. Fathom has gotten better about seeking out digital prints of film copies, but they’ve been guilty of screening 1080i copies in the past, which can look a little muddy when blown up. They’ve gotten much better about this as they’ve seen success, but I make no promises.

Seek out – especially if you live in a city – which smaller movie theaters show classics. Independent and smaller chain movie theaters often make bigger events of their classic screenings, and the unique nature of both theater and movie can draw larger, more energetic crowds. My Lawrence of Arabia and Back to the Future experiences were both at independent theaters (at the NW Film Center and McMenamins Bagdad Theatre, respectively – both are in Portland, Oregon). Keep an eye on Fathom Events, too, however. The experience may be more standardized, but it’s also more regular, easier to keep track of, and more accessible for most filmgoers, since they work with major, nationwide chains.

Best of all, on a weekend like this last, either option offers much better choices than what most moviegoers will have access to. So go check out an old movie on the big screen, and see how the experience compares.

To Get “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” Sony Must Dump David Fincher

Girl Who Played with Fire lead 2

by Gabriel Valdez

One of my favorite films in the last few years is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s one of director David Fincher’s most impressive works, a tone poem of oppression, obsession, and rejection.

Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist is an idealist who suffers at the hands of social manipulators – white collar criminals and sadistic serial killers alike – while Rooney Mara’s  Lisbeth Salander plays his cynical knight in punk-goth armor, a hacker whose only care is to aggressively deconstruct – the identities of others, the clues to a mystery, the life of her abuser, the power foundation of an international bank. She’s one of my favorite heroes on film…well, ever.

Mara recently told E! that she was very doubtful the planned sequel – The Girl Who Played With Fire – would ever come to fruition. “I’m sad never to do it again,” she told Marc Malkin, “but it just doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards.”

Where the problem lies between Fincher and Sony is difficult to say. Much has been written about Fincher’s budget demands, but these may be red herrings or negotiation tactics. The impasse may rely as much on whether the last two films of the trilogy would be shot back to back, and on seemingly endless (and costly) rewrites of the screenplay. Obviously, Fincher’s the best choice to realize the sequel, but this doesn’t mean he’s the only choice.

Sony, who admittedly have created many of the problems they now face with Fincher, has got to deliver an ultimatum. If it isn’t met, they must move on. I want this movie. More importantly, I want it with this cast. I’d like to see Fincher at the helm – if you ask me, no director has changed the face of film more since the 1980s. Yet there are other choices. Here are five suggestions:

I’ve long said that if the pair can’t figure it out, Sony should give David Cronenberg a call. The franchise would exist both inside and outside of Cronenberg’s wheelhouse. He creates darkly horrific tales of mental, physical, and emotional frailty. That’s what this franchise is. Fire might creatively constrain him, though. Could he realize the thrill of discovery and risk that Fincher did? I don’t know.

Mary Harron deserves more work. She once knocked American Psycho out of the park and while she’s experienced at horror, she’s more experienced at exactingly taking the genre apart at its seams, which is the real strength Fincher brings to the table.

Could Steven Soderbergh be coaxed out of his not-really retirement? He’s a career chameleon with a rare ability to direct from the inside-out in any genre, although he can gloss a film over where Fincher is exactingly dispassionate. He’s directed Mara to stunning effect before in Side Effects.

What about Danny Boyle? It wouldn’t be the first time he took over for Fincher, as he’s doing now for the Aaron Sorkin-written Steve Jobs biopic. Boyle is a master of changing voice, pace, and style – 28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours. He’s not a precise match for the tone Fincher set, but who is?

If you want an out-of-left-field suggestion: Tomas Alfredson, director of Let the Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Few are as good at setting mood. His films are paced glacially, but they always pay off. He’s also as good a director of actors as you can find, and he lends his movies that dispassionate, exacting quality I spoke of earlier while marrying them to a worldview more hauntingly sad.

These are the five who come off the top of my head right away. Obviously, Fincher is the best choice, but with the cast assembled – with core players like Mara and Craig who realized their roles so completely in the first movie…do you really want to lose those and be forced to start over? Do you think a reboot or, oh god no, a TV series (as Mara points out, Sony’s spent too much money on the rights to do nothing with them) would be better? Sony has to figure things out with Fincher. Or do the impossible, and be brave enough to dump and replace him. I don’t want to write this up one day in our Best Movies Never Made section.

Just make sure you keep Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the score, and bring Karen O in for another guest vocal. Because:

(Thanks to moviecritic92 for the heads up on Mara’s comments.)

Where Johnny Depp’s Career Is Now

 

Dark Shadows

by Gabriel Valdez

Is Johnny Depp still Johnny Depp? Did everything he touch once turn to artistic gold, and has he lost that now? Has he sold out? This reaction is to an argument I’ve heard many times, but was most recently written up by Stephanie Merry’s Washington Post article “What happened to Johnny Depp? How ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ made him, and ruined him.”

You can read her article or go straight on, because I’m sure you’ve heard the Johnny Depp argument before – he’s sold out. He sucks now. He broke your heart.

I haven’t seen Mortdecai, but even if it is the worst piece of schlock ever made, it wouldn’t be the first time Depp makes it. The argument is that he’s making worse films now than he used to, and he’s relying on bigger budgets to do so. One of those things is true.

Let’s make one thing clear: any successful artist is going to start getting more money eventually. This does not equate to selling out. Nor does praising Depp for sticking by Tim Burton’s side when Burton could do no wrong, and shellacking Depp for Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Dark Shadows. Either Depp deserves credit for sticking by Burton, or criticism for it. If Depp stopped supporting Burton once Burton’s career fell off, that would be selling out.

People are also quick to criticize The Lone Ranger, but if you look at how the Native American and other minority communities reacted to the messages inside the film, you might begin to look at it a little differently. Read my review for one take on how The Lone Ranger uses sight gags and film references to present and criticize America’s long history of genocide.

No one bothers to mention Rango either. It’s animated, critics, say. It doesn’t really count. These same critics will fight tooth-and-nail for Andy Serkis to get nominated for his motion capture performances in The Lord of the Rings and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But Rango, which is a fully motion-captured film, doesn’t count because it’s animated. That’s some logic for you.

No one bothers to mention how Depp and other actors stepped in, after the death of Heath Ledger, to help Terry Gilliam finish The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Depp is further blamed for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which he was once lauded for. So, his performance is still good, we’re just upset there’s too much of it? I get that people don’t like sequels – except for all the sequels that they like – and think they’re some new evil we’ve never faced before (the first American sequel that was a true event movie was 1916’s The Fall of a Nation, and that was before we got to making 80,000 Sherlock Holmes movies). But, whatever, fine, sequels are evil, and every actor who’s ever participated in one has sold out. And everyone from Homer to Arthur Conan Doyle should be strung up for making the concept viable before film was even invented. Have fun watching that paint dry.

Seriously, do the same critics who go gaga for every new Marvel trailer really want to tell me about how Depp has sold out? We’re employing some very different standards here. I’ve given you the insane logic that Depp’s sticking by Burton is “selling out,” I’ve taken The Lone Ranger out of the equation, I’ll even remove Rango and Doctor Parnassus for you. Public Enemies wasn’t great, but Depp was very good in it. Screw it, let’s take that out, too.

So we take everything out and the argument is still that Depp has sold out because now he participates in sequels. He shouldn’t be able to. Even though everyone else does. As long as we’re consistent and decide we hate Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr, that The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather: Part II are abominations that should never have been. Aliens, Lord of the Rings, Toy Story 2 and 3, chuck it all in the trash. You know what, if you’re that consistent, you win. I concede the argument.

If you’re not, then what are we even talking about?

Look, Depp used to make as many bad movies as good. Nick of Time. The Brave. Secret Window. The Man Who Cried. The Astronaut’s Wife. Fricking The Ninth Gate.

Seriously, have you tried watching The Ninth Gate? Don’t. Just don’t. Or do, because then it’ll completely make my point.

But Depp’s more ridiculous now than he used to be! He overacts!

Really? Have you seen Once Upon a Time in Mexico? Cause his eyes get gouged out at one point and if you’ve lasted until then, you’ll understand the feeling.

Johnny Depp hasn’t changed. His core as an artist hasn’t turned on its head. He’s not being lazy. He’s not more prone to flops than he was before. Producers are simply putting more money into his projects, and when they don’t turn out now, people notice because they cost more. That’s it.

Nobody notices or cares when a Lawrence Dunmore project flops. They do when a Gore Verbinski movie does. I’m hardly a fan of every modern Johnny Depp role. But if you look closely, you’ll probably find you’re not a fan of every Johnny Depp role from the 90s either.

The 6 Best Super Bowl Ads

by Gabriel Valdez

Let’s get this out of the way first: that was a heart-pounding game. John Legend won the Super Bowl before it even started. Katy Perry gave an average performance and a superb show. If halftime is about excess and tweet-worthy visuals and celebrity, she excelled. Let’s face it – only one performer was ever able to deliver a musical performance instead of an ostentatious show at the Super Bowl, and that was Prince.

One more thing: Always had the best Super Bowl ad. Hands down. Its “Like a Girl” campaign is one of the only advertising campaigns I would ever call crucial. Ads are meant to take away, to make you feel like you need something in your life that you don’t have, to make you feel lesser for not having it. The “Like a Girl” campaign is one of the only ones that makes you feel better, as if you don’t need something more in your life, and that acknowledges its product as completely secondary to a real social message.

I’ll post the full version of the commercial here:

That was the best Super Bowl commercial. End of story. It’s been around for months, though, so let’s talk about the best original Super Bowl commercials, ones which made their TV premier right before or during the game.

5. “First Draft Ever”

My biggest problem with modern advertising is that we tend to focus on setup so much that we forget to deliver the punch-line. In a Super Bowl that tended toward more serious ads, this was the funniest of the night, featuring Doug Flutie, Jerry Rice, a caveman, and the first draft ever. It’s nothing but punch-lines. The 30-second version works a little better, but good luck finding it. The minute-version is still pretty good.

4. “Make It Happy”

Coca Cola is a horrible company with a horrible history of foreign abuses that make a horrible product. But they do make good commercials. This year’s was cheesy and painted in broad strokes, but it stood out for its positive messaging.

It also stood out for its editing – in an evening when Darren Aronofsky-style hip-hop editing dominated the night (it’s named for its philosophy, not for being used much in hip-hop), Coke kept to their traditional David Fincher-style of 90s music video editing. It made the commercial’s rhythm stand out from the hundreds of car commercials that want to make their new car seem like a Requiem for a Dream addiction.

3. “Be More Human”

There was a sudden and decided focus this year to feature women in commercials as more than just trophies. “Be More Human” ran right before the Super Bowl and featured both women and men performing fanatical workouts. But it also showed a woman carrying a man on her shoulders and women doing workouts side-by-side with and just as tough as the men. Some commercials this year did a great job of addressing issues that effect women – domestic abuse and double standards. That’s important, but the other half of the equation is to offer visuals of women as heroes and icons. That’s what this did.

2. “Lost Dog”

This hit me square in the Incredible Journey place in my heart. Budweiser owns the Super Bowl when it comes to delivering commercials that make the eyes water. If only they made beer that didn’t.

1. “Invisible”

Nationwide wins on delivering an ad that’s ostensibly about treating all their customers well, but that’s really about how women and minorities are so often treated as second-class citizens in our society. This was a theme during the Super Bowl this year and while these are all still ads, they really do reflect the changing values in our society. Ads hook onto the most relevant and talked-about messages already present. To be advertised something in a new way isn’t a victory, but to have women finally valued in ads in a way they weren’t before does speak to how the conversation about feminism has changed over the last few years.

Deflate-gate: Why Cheating in Sports Doesn’t Matter (Unless it Does)

by Gabriel Valdez

Let’s be clear about one thing, football fans: We watch a cheater’s game.

Yes, it looks like the New England Patriots under-inflated footballs in the Conference Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. This serves a competitive advantage so that QB Tom Brady can grip the ball more easily.

Their opponents in the Super Bowl will be the Seattle Seahawks. In their Conference Championship win, they let QB Russell Wilson skip the league-required concussion protocol after a vicious hit to the head. This is the same Seahawks team that’s had six players suspended for performance enhancing drug (PED) use since the appointment of Pete Carroll as head coach.

The Seahawks beat the Green Bay Packers in that game to get to the Super Bowl. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is on record telling analyst Phil Simms two years ago (ironically, right before he played the Patriots) that he tries to get away with sneaking over-inflated footballs past the refs, providing a competitive advantage for his touch passing style of throwing.

When the Patriots beat the Colts last weekend, they played a team with the league’s most promising young QB at its helm: Andrew Luck. Many believe that Colts coaches purposefully tanked the 2011 season, a strategy that is acknowledged and accepted in the NBA but is illegal in the NFL. Why would the Colts do that? So they could get the #1 overall pick in 2012: Andrew Luck.

Not every team cheats on the field, however. In order to get to the Conference Championship game, the Patriots had to beat the Ravens in a tight match-up. This NFL season started with Ravens RB Ray Rice knocking his wife unconscious. Evidence came out that the Ravens and NFL conspired to hide the details of the incident. There are even texts on record in which the Ravens owner, Steve Bisciotti, tells Rice that he’ll take care of it and there will always be a place for Rice on the team. Rice, of course, was punished, although it took the league a few times to get that punishment right. For their attempts to cover up the incident, the NFL suffered a PR fiasco that ultimately has little impact on the league, excused itself of any wrongdoing through an internal investigation, and the Ravens suffered no punishment whatsoever.

The Seahawks had to beat the Panthers in the Wild Card round. Years ago, the Panthers underwent a massive PED investigation that called into question their own appearance in Super Bowl 38.

The Packers also beat the Cowboys two weeks ago. Just a week earlier, the Cowboys were accused of influencing the referees and the league to make calls in their favor, a notion ridiculous on its face but exacerbated when video of the league’s VP of officiating from earlier in the season resurfaced. What did it show? The man leaving a Cowboys party bus full of women who appeared to be strippers. That’s nothing against those women, but they aren’t the ones in charge of the league’s officiating. Come to think of it, maybe they should be.

Also in this year’s playoffs, the Colts beat the Broncos, who in 2010 were fined by the league for an incident known as Spygate II. Spygate I, of course, involved the Patriots videotaping another teams’ signals. The illegality doesn’t lie in the practice, as many believe, but simply in what section of the seats you decide to set your camera to do the videotaping. The Broncos were fined.

Other playoff teams this year include the Bengals, Cardinals, Lions, and Steelers.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is outspoken about treating the league’s concussion protocol as a nuisance, and is suspected of letting several players pass through it without proper diagnosis.

The Cardinals are actually fairly scandal-free, which is perhaps one reason they were also playoff-free until this year. They did have a player arrested on domestic violence charges earlier this year, but unlike the 49ers, Panthers, Ravens, and Vikings, they promptly released their player. Oh, wait no, I’m sorry. The Cardinals have held onto starting LB Daryl Washington, despite his being suspended a season for assaulting his girlfriend. You see, the player they cut immediately, Jonathan Dwyer, was a reserve backup and doesn’t give them any real competitive advantage. Washington does.

The Lions, meanwhile, are known as the dirtiest team in the league. DT Ndamukong Suh stomps on players while they’re down and kicks them in the groin. After Suh intentionally stepped on the torn calf muscle of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, he was suspended a game. As NFL Network analyst Brian Billick correctly guessed, this was so the league could look tough while negotiating the suspension down to a simple fine, so that Suh could play in the Lions first home playoff game in two decades.

Even ignoring Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger’s two rape accusations (which, one should note for fairness, were never pressed past accusations), the Steelers have their legacy cemented in NFL history because of their four 1970s Super Bowl wins. Never mind the massive amount of steroids players on those teams admitted they took.

You want to call Super Bowls into question? The New Orleans Saints won their heroic comeback to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina on the back of an on-field bounty scandal, wherein players were paid extra whenever they injured an opposing player enough to remove him from the game.

The Baltimore Ravens won two Super Bowls with star LB Ray Lewis, who was involved in a murder investigation in 2001. He later pleaded down, and the league never mentioned it again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Brad Johnson admitted that he paid for under-inflated footballs in the team’s lone Super Bowl win, over the Oakland Raiders.

The Dallas Cowboys, “America’s Team” in the 1990s, covered over arrests through settlements that amounted to legal bribes with parties who were assaulted and abused by its players, thereby keeping some of its biggest stars on the field at a time they should have been in jail.

New York Giants Super Bowl star LB Lawrence Taylor admitted to paying for drugs and prostitutes to be sent to the opposing team’s hotel the night before big games.

As for under-inflating footballs, though it might pale by comparison to some of the examples above, it’s still cheating. But let’s be clear: that’s what this league is. I fully believe that 90% of players are just doing a job and trying to do the best, most honest work they can. But those 10% left over make a difference, especially when you factor in owners for whom no rules really apply. Teams around the league make concessions to keep those 10% on the field and to give their teams any advantage they can. Nearly every playoff team and Super Bowl victory deserves some sort of asterisk next to it.

I say all this, but I’m a football fan. Hell, I know all this because I’m a football fan. I’m nuts about football. I can’t wait for the Super Bowl. I think it’s one of the best matchups in recent history.

Frankly, I’ll take a team under-inflating footballs and a team with some PED problems any day of the week over teams hiding away domestic abusers and paying bounties for career-threatening injuries.

I’d like to see the Seahawks treat the concussion protocol more seriously (this is true for all teams, including the Patriots), but I also applaud their attitude toward team-oriented support systems and pro-active rehabilitation for players who have had off-field issues.

(The argument about whether players should be allowed to take PEDs when we ask them to otherwise wreck their bodies by the time they’re 35 is a far more complicated conversation – there are arguments on both sides worth listening to, and a regulated industry might be safer in the long run than the illicit and more dangerous one that doesn’t care about side effects and will happen anyway.)

It’s interesting that the harshest penalties the league hands down to teams are due to videotaping another team’s signals, under-inflating footballs, and tampering with the negotiations of another team’s player (as the Jets are accused of this year).

It’s interesting because the lightest penalties the league hands to teams are in relation to off-field violence and domestic abuse. That seems incredibly backwards to me.

I wish we could see the same indignation leveled at both the league and teams over harboring domestic abusers that we see over a smushy football.

Covering over assaults and domestic abuse should have no part in this game, and if the league can’t continue improving its response to this, I will stop watching. Period.

Cheating the concussion protocol needs to stop being overlooked by the league, and start costing draft picks. That has to do with long-term physical and mental health.

But the rest of it? Spying? Under- and over-inflating footballs? Finding any competitive advantage without hurting anyone until you get caught? Couldn’t care less. That’s professional sports. If you’re going to be a fan, stop pretending you’re watching something pure. You’re watching millionaire players and billionaire owners using their considerable resources to find any competitive advantage they can. I’d say that’s what the game is today, but in many ways, it’s what the game always has been. It’s what every professional league became decades ago. Welcome to the ridiculous hypocrisy of being a sports fan.

But if you’re going to get angry over something, get angry over something that matters, that does hurt someone, that does change lives. There’s more than enough of that in the league for you to get angry about.

How to Assassinate a World Leader on Film or: Why North Korea and Sony Are Both Wrong

The Interview poster

by Gabriel Valdez

First thing’s first. I don’t like North Korea. They treat their citizens the only way a military dictatorship seems to know how. It’s a nation ruled by bullies and propped up so long only because China prefers a buffer between American land forces in South Korea and themselves.

What do I think about the complete cancellation of Sony’s new film about assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, The Interview? After hackers, reportedly employed by the North Korean government, revealed Sony studio chiefs’ private correspondence and pirated several of their upcoming films, the studio was still set to release The Interview in theaters this weekend. It wasn’t until the threat of physical violence that theater chains began pulling The Interview and, finally, Sony decided to simply shelve the film.

Let’s get some perspective. First off, the thought that North Korea has any capability to extend physical threats into the American public is laughable. Secondly, even if they did have any real covert extension, they wouldn’t waste exposing it just to stop a movie. Thirdly, China is too heavily invested in the United States to want to spark a war (even by proxy), and they don’t want to have to prop up North Korea’s infrastructure even more were we to respond to a terrorist attack on our soil by bombing them.

North Korean agents are not roaming our streets in droves – that’s ridiculous. China has better things to do than engage in brinksmanship over a Seth Rogen movie. While North Korea doesn’t always listen, the regime depends on China for survival and China will have made it known to North Korea what actions are tolerable and what actions will see consequences. Don’t get me wrong – China will be overjoyed to see the effect some well-funded, but pretty basic, hacking can have on U.S. businesses. They love having the ability to use North Korea in this way. If China did this (and they’ve pushed the boundaries), it would be an international incident. A fight between North Korea and Sony? That’s on the entertainment page.

Theater chains did not pull The Interview because of the threat of physical violence. They pulled it because they did not want to be hacked next. If Sony couldn’t withstand it, what chance does Regal Cinemas or Cinemark have, let alone the smaller and regional chains? It just sounds better to buy into the narrative and say, “We’re protecting our customers,” than it does to admit, “Yeah, we have some e-mails and finances we don’t want to see the light.”

Now, declaring this as a resounding defeat against terrorism is…stupid. I was looking for a more nuanced word, but “stupid” works just fine. Like I said, I don’t like or support North Korea, but Sony up and made a movie about killing another country’s leader. No matter how much I may dislike that leader and think he’s an evil mark upon this earth, that’s dangerous territory – ethically and otherwise. What are some other recent comedies that depict assassinations of real-world people who were alive at the time?

How about the famous South Park episode where Cartman kills Osama bin Laden? Well, that’s not a world leader, that’s a terrorist. Those definitions certainly bump into each other when talking about the leader of North Korea, so how about Team America: World Police going to war against Kim Jong-il (father of and predecessor to Kim Jong-un)?

These are fuzzy definitions we’re getting into, but I interpret those two examples as lampoons. Keep in mind that in Team America: World Police, our heroes have to fight their way through the likes of Sean Penn and Matt “Matt Damon” Damon. Team America wasn’t about assassinating another country’s leader, it was about an interpretation of Hollywood’s occasionally self-serving morals…and puppets. The fact that all the characters were marionettes definitely helped. Neither the movie nor its advertising campaign was: “Kill this guy.” They were each larger than that, communicating instead, “This is a movie about how ridiculous we can be and, oh yeah, Kim Jong-il’s in it singing about being lonely while he feeds U.N. inspectors to sharks.” (North Korea certainly didn’t like that movie, but they didn’t launch this large a campaign against it.)

The Interview seems to be about: “Kill this guy.” Its advertising campaign boils down to: “Kill this guy.” It involved neither animation nor marionettes, which have the capability to deflect criticism itself into the realm of the silly and not worthwhile. It starred James Franco and Seth Rogen, two very recognizable personalities.

Furthermore, that South Park episode, “Osama bin Laden has Farty Pants,” was made about a figure with whom we were already at war. The episode was itself a part of that war. Not only did U.S. troops reportedly love it, but that episode also sought to deconstruct the mythical power of bin Laden in our own minds. By lampooning him, we took him less seriously. The most powerful tool you can wield against a Bogeyman is to stop being scared of him. South Park made him into a punchline the same way pre-World War 2 comedies made Hitler into one. It made us confident we could beat him rather than be scared of him.

Team America: World Police isn’t that much more complicated. We were not at war with North Korea, although North Korea is still technically at war with us. Kim Jong-il was in it, but he wasn’t the purpose of the film. Team America recognized that he wasn’t a Bogeyman because we already didn’t take him or North Korea seriously. The Bogeymen in Team America were our own political extremes – conservative Imperialism, Hollywood-styled liberalism, and an ineffectual U.N.

Team America may be a silly movie about how ridiculous marionettes can be made to look, but it was also the most effective millennial artistic takedown of the U.N. until P.J. Harvey recorded “The Words That Maketh Murder.”

Having not seen it, no one can say for sure if The Interview had a deeper reason for being, but advertising made it seem empty. The joke communicated wasn’t “The Bogeyman is only in our heads,” and it wasn’t “let’s glue stuff on marionettes until they look like mutant caricatures.” The joke advertised was: “Kill this guy.”

That’s a fundamentally different and excessively remedial approach to making a film about a real-life figure. There’s a reason that even the most serious-minded films and TV shows about world politics use fictional figures (Syriana, Tyrant), fictional countries (from Duck Soup to West Wing), recount recent history (Zero Dark Thirty), or house their fictional narratives alongside fact-based chronologies (Green Zone). These films are careful and, while we view comedies as inherently irreverent, that irreverence means you need to be even more careful.

Irreverence is not an excuse. It does not mean you don’t do the work required to understand your situation. It means you work even harder to understand it that much better, so that you can most effectively undermine it. If you’re not willing to do that work, then make your movie about assassinating a fictional character in a fictional country that looks and feels a lot like North Korea. Maybe even stick a joke about how James Franco keeps calling it North Korea and Seth Rogen has to keep correcting him.

More than anything else, I look at The Interview and ask if it helped or harmed relations with North Korea. The Trey Parker and Matt Stone examples I bring up (South Park, Team America), for all their conscious viciousness and disrespect, did enough to mediate the potential damage they could have caused with other cultures. The Interview, so far, did not. That’s a film that could cost lives, maybe not American ones but possibly South Korean ones and almost assuredly North Korean ones. For all the bitching about releasing the Congressional report on torture this last week and how it might cost lives, those same voices are now arguing that The Interview scraping its release is a tragedy? If one costs lives, the other does, too.

I’m not saying Sony doesn’t have the right to make and release The Interview. I’ll defend to my dying breath that they absolutely do. What I am saying is that The Interview, at least as advertised, was deeply irresponsible.

The lines between what’s OK and what’s not when it comes to making art involving an existing dictator and his assassination are so fuzzy that I don’t think anyone can clearly demarcate what’s right and what’s wrong. But the fixes for The Interview would have been so remarkably easy, mediating the potential damage it could risk so inconsequential an act, that I don’t find myself feeling sorry for Sony at all. I feel sorry for Lizzy Caplan and Diana Bang and Timothy Simons and other actors who were probably excited to see the results of their last gig. I feel sorry for the other Sony films that were pirated and released online because of a production with which they had nothing to do. But just because North Korea’s a raging, megalomaniacal dictatorship doesn’t mean that Sony is the Angel of frickin’ Christmas. They can both be assholes in this situation.

If The Interview had been advertised as a film about James Franco and Seth Rogen acting silly and, oh yeah, Kim Jong-un’s in it, you would have seen a smoother lead-up to release. North Korea would have objected after the fact, but they wouldn’t have launched an entire campaign against it.

This brings up two questions:

1. What the hell did Sony expect?
2. Why the hell weren’t they prepared for it?

Many called this reaction from North Korea months ago. Anyone even halfway paying attention had to suspect North Korea – who have a history of hacking U.S. businesses far more sensitive in their nature than Sony – would retaliate. It’s not a country that bothers itself with anything better to do.

Why the hell wasn’t Sony in the least prepared for this reaction? Why hadn’t they prepped for it and coordinated with the U.S. government? Our government doesn’t miss a chance to go toe-to-toe with foreign hackers. It’s like war games for them because it is, essentially, live-fire practice for a key component of the next major war.

If I were Sony, I’d be firing some key people (Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin chief among them), not just because North Korea revealed e-mails where they were clearly being racist, and e-mails in which they were conspiring to pay female stars less than their male counterparts. It wouldn’t even be because The Interview is going to be at least an $80 million loss on their books (assuming half-and-half for budget and advertising, which is a very conservative estimate). It wouldn’t even be out of the embarrassment of all these things combined. I would be firing people because all of this was so very easily preventable.

And when something is this easily preventable, it’s only out of sheer laziness or ego that it happens anyway.