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

Artistic Expression under attack Charlie Hebdo
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

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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  1. No matter what we CAN NOT cave in on the issue of Free Expression ! CNN has caved in and will not show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which is a shame ! We Can not let these bastards win !

  2. bkbeach4x4 says:

    Question, if the FBI can place blame and be 100% positive they know who the actors are in the Sony case, why, since all of ISIS digital assets are hosted with staggering IPs online can’t they ping, finger and eliminate that digital threat? It makes the USA or EU seem unable to respond in an intelligent and decisive manner, and we need to respond in a fashion that cost the guilty far more than they gain from the act.

  3. Hollywood and the NBA, NFL, NHL and all the other ‘L’s are to blame. Try getting the new generation to really read a book that’s NOT on the PC or playstation 3/4 on sale now @ Best Buy, that doesn’t have any of the latter mentioned topics for conversation. Someone from the league or NRA/BGLQT/KKK/AB can try to troll me know.

  4. Julienne says:

    Terrorists want to kill innocent people period. If you argue with their mantra, they want to shut you up first.

    Now…if we kill the caveman bastards where they lie, they won’t be able to threaten anybody.

    U.S.SEALs motto: “Kill’em all…let God sort them out.”

  5. GKN says:

    “Possible self-censorship”? Who are we kidding. They’ve been spineless for years now, especially concerning the nutters in our own country of the Christian variety. Even they themselves have been aware of just how much HW has been playing up to them these past few years. (Not that anything ever makes them happy.)

    • Awesome says:

      GKN, really? Just shut the F up, you idiot.

    • Henry Q. says:

      Very positive that the Christian people do not feel well represented in the press in this country, or in Hollywood – and quite certain they would feel you’re the “nutter,” and an angry one at that.

    • Quincey says:

      You are an intolerant “nutter.” Very surprised that Variety didn’t censor such a thoughtless and asinine comment as yours.

  6. J. R. Niles says:

    Freedom of expression is the very heart and soul and core of artists and our art. Never back down.
    J. R. Niles

  7. I am Dr. Hug says:

    The idea of freedom of expression is worth standing for; but so is the idea of being responsible for what you say. For every right there is a responsibility to use it properly.

    Just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should.

  8. Contessa46 says:

    If you cave on American freedoms and core principals you might as well burn the constitution and buy your wife a burka! With all the freedoms we have has it never occurred to you guys in Hollywood that it comes at a cost? Sometimes it’s American lives and sometimes it’s the corporations profits. Now it’s your turn to step up to the plate and show what you’re made of. And the public won’t forget or forgive if you make the wrong decision.

    • nerdrage says:

      Exactly. You earn the right to be free by your willingness to kill others to defend that freedom (or more commonly, to pay others to do the killing). That’s why Kim Il Fuckwit’s threats were hollow (and Sony & the mainstream theater owners were pussies for believing the threats) – because he knows we’ll wipe his sorry little shithole of a country off the face of the Earth if he attacks us. As for France, the cops there have already killed/arrested the perps.

      Moral of the story to everyone: even if you never lifted a finger to violently defend your freedom, that freedom exists only because somebody else did once, and is doing it now, and will do it in the future. You’re not off the hook for being a vegan-munching peacenik.

  9. C’mon – “the prophet Mohammed”? That’s like saying, “the messiah Jesus” or “the dear leader, Kim Jong-il.” I say the term should be “the founder of Islam, Mohammed”.

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