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Fear and Censorship: Paris, Sony Attacks Put Creative Freedoms Under Fire

A brutal attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo over cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad has jolted Hollywood, escalating concerns by artists and producers that major studios and networks may avoid greenlighting movies and TV shows with potentially inflammatory content.

Wednesday’s murder of 12 people at the newspaper comes on the heels of the hacking catastrophe at Sony Pictures. The FBI pinned that act of cyberterrorism on North Korea as retaliation over the studio’s release of “The Interview,” an R-rated comedy that depicts the assassination of that country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

Freedom of speech is under attack, but, given Sony’s initial decision to pull the release of the “The Interview” and its subsequent about-face, it’s not clear how rousing a defense the entertainment business is willing to mount in the midst of financial pressures, political dangers and the threat of violence.

“All of this is deeply concerning to me because increasingly we live in a culture of fear,” said documentary director Joe Berlinger, whose films include “Paradise Lost” and “Crude.” “This culture of fear is economically based, and that doesn’t mix well with freedom of expression.”

Berlinger said it’s already difficult to get networks and studios to back politically charged projects because they are worried about alienating advertisers or sectors of the audience.

In the hours following the Paris attacks, not one of the Hollywood movie or TV studio executives contacted by Variety would comment on the implications for the entertainment industry and potential chilling effect the killings could have on producing controversial content.

That reticence to tackle controversies threatens to calcify, filmmakers and other industry watchers say. Already, CNN has had to justify its decision not to air images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that may have provoked the attack.

“We were already heading in the direction of possible self-censorship in Hollywood because of the Sony hacking, and this might just reinforce those tendencies,” said Ira Deutchman, chair of the film program at Columbia University and co-founder of Emerging Pictures.

Studios routinely edit out scenes and other imagery from films exported overseas so as to not offend local sensibilities or, in the case of China, to pass muster with government censors. The worry among some writers, however, is that projects won’t even get to that point.

Novelist Andrew Kaplan, author of the “Scorpion” adventure novels and “Homeland” book tie-ins, said that he sees the Paris attack as “leading to more self-censorship. As a writer or film or TV producer, nobody’s looking for more headaches. So people step away from problems.”

He said that his book “Scorpion: Betrayal” had a dangerous terrorist character known as “the Palestinian,” and “There were strong suggestions from my editor to change this.”

Kaplan dug in his heels.

“We batted this back and forth, but I held my ground,” he said. “I could see why they felt, ‘We don’t want to step into this mess.’ People are already antsy about discussing Islam and the prophet Mohammed. Also, even though the Mideast is not a huge market for films and TV, it’s an important source of money for productions. So producers and executives pull in their horns. They say, ‘Let’s shade this a little differently’ because the truth is, they want the Mideast money.”

Thus far, it doesn’t appear that films will be shelved as a direct result of Wednesday’s attack. Paramount Pictures, for instance, is still moving forward with “Taliban Shuffle,” an adaptation of journalist Kim Barker’s memoir of her time reporting in Kabul. Production on the film, set to star Tina Fey, begins in February.

“We all must stand firm on issue of free speech,” Fey told journalists at a Television Critics Association press conference hours after the attacks in Paris. “We are Americans. Even if it’s just dumb jokes in ‘The Interview.’ We have the right to make them.”

The limits of artistic expression aren’t just being weighed in studio boardrooms: A federal appellate court is currently grappling with the issue. Last year, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with an actress who is seeking an order to force YouTube to take down the “Innocence of Muslims” video, which was the source of protests in the Middle East over its inflammatory portrayal of Mohammad.

The judges seemed to sympathize with the actress, who said that she was unaware that the project would wind up being so offensive to Islam, and that she received death threats due to her connection to the project. But Google, backed by tech companies and some filmmakers, is appealing the decision, with a ruling expected soon from an en banc panel of the court.

Many on the artistic end of the spectrum, like Fey, were defiant in the face of the latest tragedy.

Producer J.C. Spink, who made the “We’re the Millers” and “Hangover” comedy hits, said he and his partners would not allow terrorists and foreign governments to dictate what projects they choose to make. “It’s not satire that’s setting these guys off,” he said. “It’s pure craziness and being an idiot. I don’t think these guys are smart enough to understand satire.”

On Wednesday, many of the statements coming from various Hollywood organizations, condemning the attacks and pledging support for freedom of speech, were made with mindfulness of what happened with “The Interview.” After the nation’s biggest exhibitors pulled out of showing the movie, and Sony withdrew it from release, many in the Hollywood creative community characterized it as caving in to North Korea, and President Obama called the decision “a mistake.” Sony ultimately released the picture in a smaller number of theaters and on-demand.

New Regency quickly shelved a Steve Carell project called “Pyongyang,” set in North Korea, after “The Interview” debacle.

“Our industry has experienced firsthand cowardly attempts (to destroy) freedom of speech, and we offer our expression of support to the victims and their families, as well as the French people,” said MPAA chairman Chris Dodd in a statement released just hours after the attack.

The twin assaults on free speech and creative freedom are still being sorted through. Sony Pictures continues to dig out from the fallout from the leaked documents and financial information related to the hack, for instance, but the worst there appears to be over.

Predicting Sony and its big studio brethren’s appetite for risk remains a delicate science.

“It’s a brand-new ballgame now, but it may be too early to assess things,” said David Friendly, a film producer and the executive producer of the upcoming USA Network series “Queen of the South.” “It depends on who is running the studio and what agenda they have.”

(Additional reporting by Steven Gaydos)

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