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Will Creatives Face Limits to Expression in Wake of Attacks?

Will Charlie Hebdo Limit Free Expression
Pierre Suu/Getty Images

When it comes to freedom of creative expession, the stakes for Hollywood have never been higher.

As studios push for greater entree into worldwide markets, movies that seem benign in most countries can trigger an international incident in others. With word spreading ever-more-quickly over projects in the pipeline, decision-making across the entertainment industry is impacted, with increased scrutiny of politically sensitive content.

Moreover, as technology enables daring material to get wider attention, opposing voices have gotten louder and, in some cases, more insidious and threatening.

“We live in an age when new ways of experiencing entertainment can literally be turned into weapons to try to restrain an artist’s right to create freely,” says producer David Linde of Lava Bear Films.

The brutal attack on satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris have raised fears that Hollywood will face greater risk when releasing controversial movies and TV shows into more markets — enough to make studios and networks question whether provocative material is worth the potential fallout.

As much as the show of support from stars at the Golden Globes, following the massive march on the streets of Paris that day, indicates a united front on freedom of speech, the worry is that the threats won’t just stifle expression, but also lead to a kind of self-censorship.

TV veteran Norman Lear, whose battles with CBS over “All in the Family” and other shows of the 1970s often pushed the envelope in primetime, reminds that the push-pull between art and commerce is nothing new. “One hand is saying, ‘Be as daring as possible,’ and the other hand is saying, ‘Hold it, hold it,’ ” he explains. The difference is in levels of threatened violence and actual violence that exist in today’s world.

“We are saying ‘hold it,’ because your life may be at stake,” Lear says. “We all want a writer to have the right to express himself and herself freely … but  will the people who pay for everything be more skittish? The past indicates they will.”

Religion often has been the flash point for projects that were too hot to handle, with networks responding to pressure, and refusing to air a controversial sitcom episode -— or an advertiser pulling its name from a polarizing TV drama.

For instance, in 2006, a handful of stations in conservative states refused to show episodes of “The Book of Daniel,” an NBC drama about an Episcopal priest with a troubled family life. In 2010, Comedy Central altered an episode of “South Park” after an earlier one that satirized the prophet Mohammed drew a warning from the group Revolution Muslim, which threatened the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

But studios’ decisions to move forward with projects and stand their ground can come at a heavy cost.

In 1988, when Universal Pictures released “The Last Temptation of Christ,” it faced protests from Christian groups who saw it as blasphemous. In Paris, the Saint Michel Theater, which was showing the film, was attacked with Molotov cocktails; the theater was gutted, and about a dozen people were injured.

The difference between then and now is that the marketplace demands studio chieftains have more awareness of the potential for fallout. That was reflected in some of the emails revealed in the recent Sony hack, in which it was discovered that corporate CEO Kazuo Hirai had some misgivings over featuring a real-life leader, Kim Jong-un, as the target in “The Interview.” Although security experts have raised doubts that North Korea was the culprit for the Sony hack, the FBI and other U.S. intelligence officials continue to express confidence in their conclusion that the country’s regime was responsible.

And as much as there may be added pressure on those who create and distribute controversial content, the experience of “The Interview” showed that they also face a backlash if they are seen as having caved in to demands. After the nation’s top four major theater circuits and then Sony Pictures announced they would pull the movie in the face of the cyber attack and physical threats, creative types almost immediately decried the move. Even President Obama chimed in, calling Sony’s decision a “mistake.” By the following week, the studio had worked out distribution deals in a limited number of theaters and on-demand platforms.

Meanwhile, the worldwide sentiment stirred in last week’s brutal attack on Charlie Hebdo showed support not just for the victims of the assault, but also for freedom of speech.

The question is whether this show of unity and support will give comfort to Hollywood decision-makers at major studios and networks. HBO this summer will debut “The Brink,” a comedy with a terrorism theme. At a press conference at the current Television Critics Assn. gathering, one of the show’s stars, Jack Black, made light of the idea that it would create an international incident.

Executive producer Jerry Weintraub told reporters, “No fear on this stage.”