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Sony Hack, Movie Cancellation Raise Liability Concerns

Much of the coverage of the cyber attack on Sony Entertainment and threats surrounding the release of Seth Rogen and James Franco’s “The Interview” has revolved around “censorship” and debates about standing up to terrorists who threaten the company and theatergoers if the movie is shown.

But, writers and others who are quick to point fingers and thump their chests as they call for the release of “The Interview” overlook premises liability concerns that theater owners were surely aware of as they considered showing the comedy.

To recap via CNN, a group calling itself “Guardians of Peace” hacked into Sony Entertainment’s computer system and stole and released reams of private data, including Social Security numbers and embarrassing emails. It said the attack was in retaliation for “The Interview,” which depicts a CIA-aided attempt by two television journalists to assassinate Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In a follow-up message “GOP” said it would retaliate wherever the movie was shown and invoked “the 11th of September 2001.”

After the threat became public, Sony said on Dec. 18 it would not release “The Interview” on Christmas Day, as originally planned. This resulted in complaints of knuckling under to terrorists’ threats by such Hollywood luminaries as George Clooney, Rob Lowe, Judd Apatow, Steve Carell, and others.

Just after the FBI announced that North Korea was behind the cyber attack, President Obama said in a news conference that Sony had made a mistake pulling the film.

But Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton said a day later that Sony had to pull the movie because theaters were refusing to show it. Sony only makes movies, and it has no way to distribute them, he said. In a Dec. 21 interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press”, David Boies, the studio’s lawyer, said, “The Interview” would eventually be released. And in Variety the same day, “three theater industry executives” said that theater chains asked only to delay the movie until authorities could discover who was behind GOP or had apprehended those who hacked the studio.

According to Variety, Lynton and the heads of such major theater chains as Carmike, Regal and AMC talked by telephone and discussed theater owners’ “safety concerns.”

These concerns are certainly valid. Theater owners had been warned that their patrons would not be safe if they showed “The Interview.” Any theater that had shown the film and suffered an attack would certainly be subjected to legal action based on their having neglected their duty to do what’s reasonably necessary to ensure the safety of their patrons.

There were multiple lawsuits filed against the Cinemark theater chain by survivors and relatives of those killed in a shooting rampage in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July 2012. Those plaintiffs blame a lack of adequate security at the theater for contributing to the deaths of their loved ones. Cinemark has so far unsuccessfully argued that it “could not have known ‘a madman’s mass murder’ could occur on their property.”

Carmike, Regal, AMC or any other theaters that showed “The Interview” would not even have that defense.

We are as disgusted by terror threats as anyone, particularly over the content of a movie comedy, but as lawyers, we understand the duty theater owners have to protect their patrons from the potential for harm as well as their obligation to protect their businesses from legal liability.