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'The Interview' Is Not The First Film To Rile A Government

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And in Hollywood, there has been a lot of outrage, not from studio executives so much, but a lot of artists who are just sickened by Sony's decision to cancel the release of "The Interview." Evan Osnos is a staff writer with The New Yorker, where he covers politics and foreign affairs. He says this isn't actually the first time that foreign governments have tried to pressure filmmakers, and it's not the first time that Hollywood has caved.

EVAN OSNOS: If you go back all the way to the 1920s, filmmakers in Hollywood changed the identity of villains from German to Russian. At the time, Germany imported a lot of films from Hollywood and the Russians didn't, and you see versions of that in the decades since.

RATH: Can you give us some more recent examples, maybe in the television age?

OSNOS: Well, what happened in 1980 is an interesting case. There was a docudrama that was made, called "The Death Of A Princess," which was about a true story in Saudi Arabia. It was about a public execution for adultery. And when the movie was aired on British television, the Saudi government threatened to cut off oil exports and to cut off diplomatic relations.

It went ahead in the United States. They aired the movie, but some stations, PBS stations, chose not to air it. And one of the places where they did not was South Carolina, which had a significant number of Saudi real estate investments and also was the home state of the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time.

RATH: And in terms of, you know, foreign powers that can exert some economic influence, you spent a while reporting from one of Hollywood's biggest new foreign markets, China. Can you talk about some of the alterations that have been made to films to make the Chinese government happy?

OSNOS: Yeah. China has been a puzzle for American filmmakers. It's now the second-largest international market for Hollywood films. And as a result, filmmakers have made decisions to satisfy Chinese censors and also to maintain access to Chinese financing. So for instance, in the movie "Sky Fall," the James Bond film, the filmmakers agreed to remove a scene that involved the killing of a Chinese security guard, and they pulled out a plot line in which Javier Bardem explained that he had become a villain because of his experiences in Chinese custody. The movie "Cloud Atlas," in fact, was cut by more than 30 minutes, so much so that Chinese moviegoers complained that they couldn't actually understand the plot anymore.

RATH: So is your - would your takeaway be that self-censorship because of economic pressure, we find that all right, but when it comes to self-censorship because of a threat of hacking, that crosses the line?

OSNOS: I think this is a conversation that needs to come out into the open. I think for the last few years, filmmakers have been forced on their own to try to make very difficult judgments about when it's a reasonable cut to respond to local sensibilities and when, in fact, it is self-censorship for political reasons. There are no rules of the road. The industry hasn't come up with a code of conduct, for instance, that would help people know how to operate. And so I think the North Korea case has been so dramatic, so spectacular, in a way, that it could prompt and probably should prompt a more transparent conversation about just how are we going to deal with the rest of the world as our movies begin to go further and further away.

RATH: That's Evan Osnos, staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book, "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China." Evan, thanks so much.

OSNOS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.