Aaron Sorkin, John Fithian Outspoken at Media Law Conference

Sorkin blasts the media, Fithian slaps Netflix, and nobody likes Kim Jong-un.
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Aaron Sorkin

Two high-profile Hollywood personalities did not disappoint at a media law conference Thursday afternoon, with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin lashing out at the media itself for publishing emails leaked a year ago during the Sony hacks, and exhibition executive John Fithian denouncing Netflix for its effect on motion picture theaters. Both electrified the atmosphere on their respective panels.

“I simply don’t care about the law,” declared Sorkin, arguing that ethics demanded that the media should not have published the leaked materials and thereby supported the hackers who terrorized Sony in 2015 as retaliation for the studio’s Seth Rogen comedy, The Interview, in which the CIA tasks two journalists with assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Even as he acknowledged “I get a lot of use out of the First Amendment” and described himself as a “constitutional law enthusiast,” Sorkin forcefully argued that the Hollywood media went too far.

“There was not a single thing revealed in the Sony hack that was of public concern,” Sorkin said, disagreeing with those who felt that studio executives’ emails containing racist jokes and other emails that evidenced gender-based salary differences were indeed of public interest.

The panel struggled with a variety of hypotheticals and scenarios. What if the materials had been stolen at gunpoint? What if Sony’s adversary were ISIS rather than, allegedly, North Korean hackers?

“Isn’t the answer that Seth Rogen wouldn’t do a movie about ISIS?” asked the Media Law Resource Center’s George Freeman.

“He’s probably writing one right now,” joked Sorkin in a moment of levity.

Certainly there was no sympathy for the North Korean leader, with UCLA’s Eugene Volokh remarking, “I wish the CIA would find a way to kill Kim Jong-un.”

Earlier in the afternoon, the rhetoric was only slightly less heated on a panel about the role of theatrical distribution in the digital era. Fithian, who heads the National Association of Theater Owners, asserted that “Netflix and all subscription models are horribly bad” because they reduce the perceived value of content. They are, he said, “a grave threat to the movie business.”

Like Sorkin, Fithian also had a beef with the law. “I hate the antitrust laws,” he said, because they make it difficult or impossible to evolve industry-wide business models in a coordinated way.

Asked whether movie theaters should adopt discretionary pricing — i.e., charge different prices for movie tickets based on films’ popularity or for opening weekend — Fithian grew cautious. “Yeah,” he said slowly, signaling that it was an awkward issue. But then he opened up.

“This is heresy, but I think you’re right,” he said. Theaters could have charged “three times” as much for Star Wars, Fithian enthused, calling the prospect of $30 tickets for that movie “great!” And charging the same amount for opening weekend as for later dates in a run is “crazy,” he said.

The conference, now in its thirteenth year, was sponsored by the Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute at Southwestern Law School (where, full disclosure, this reporter is an adjunct professor) and the Media Law Resource Center, and was held in an auditorium at the Los Angeles Times.

Email: jh@jhandel.com

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