By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 19, 2014 at 9:16 AM

There’s a running gag that, when something mildly annoying but, all things considered, not all that catastrophic lands on a sacred event, you note that the terrorists won. "I have a three finals on Memorial Day. The terrorists won," "I have to work on Christmas. The terrorists won," etc., etc. It’s hyperbole as comedy.

At first glance, saying "‘The Interview’ was cancelled; the terrorists won" sounds like one of those kind of jokes. But there’s little funny about it. That’s exactly what happened this past week. Terrorists – by most reports the North Koreans, though true proof has yet to be confirmed (UPDATE: The FBI confirmed North Korean involvement) – attacked a company – Sony, in case you haven’t been following the news – made demands attached to extremely vague threats and in the end, got their way. They decided what you’ll get to watch this Christmas. The terrorists won.

I was almost 24 hours away from seeing "The Interview" when the news came down that, well, nobody would see the new Seth Rogen/James Franco political farce.

I’ll be honest: I was excited for the movie. I like Rogen and Franco’s on-screen comedic bromance. Rogen and his co-director pal Evan Goldberg’s direction has been getting more and more cinematic and advanced, and I thought the political satire hinted at in the trailer looked pretty funny. As the controversy grew around the film, I admittedly became even more excited to see it, especially if the release got cancelled (as it eventually was). I’d selfishly be able to say I witnessed a modern "The Day The Clown Cried."

There’s a big difference, however, between "The Interview" and Jerry Lewis’ infamously never-released Holocaust film. Lewis himself eventually censored "The Day The Clown Cried" because he was embarrassed by it. "The Interview" got censored because terrorists threatened Hollywood, and Hollywood caved.

I’ve heard and seen the argument that losing the ability to see a silly Rogen/Franco comedy is no great artistic loss, that it looked stupid and probably sucked anyway. And no, I don’t think "The Interview" was the second coming of Chaplin’s "The Great Dictator." It probably features more bong hits than moments of sophisticated political commentary, and there’s always the possibility that it does, in fact, suck.

It doesn’t matter that this happened to THIS particular movie; what matters is what this means for ALL movies. And what this moment of irrational fear represents is a terrible precedent for the future of film and art altogether.

For one, don’t think this will be the last time you hear of something like this happening. The hackers/terrorists have essentially given a blueprint to people on how to censor material they disagree with and don’t want the public seeing.

What happens if the KKK or some other hate group calls in bomb threats on the upcoming release of "Selma"? Or if an extreme religious group threatens violence on an upcoming pro-choice or pro-gay rights movie? Or if an extreme atheist sect proclaims it’ll bomb all theaters showing the latest Christian film? These may sound ridiculous, but the precedent has been set. The standard operating procedure is established. Maybe we’ll play through next time, defending art and liberty over fear, but maybe we won’t.

Yes, that might be a bit hyperbolic, but the other destructive side effect of these Sony attacks and companies’ collectively cowardly response certainly isn’t: Hollywood will cut back on making edgy, difficult and challenging films, movies that even remotely risk rattling cages. And it’s not as though Hollywood was exactly lining up to do that before these attacks started.

In fact, the chilling effect is already affect right now. Mere hours after the pressure on Sony and "The Interview" intensified, another film – "Pyongyang," a North Korea-set comedy starring Steve Carell and directed by Gore Verbinski – was canceled out of fear. Some smaller theaters – namely the Alamo Drafthouse cinemas – were cleverly planning to show "Team America: World Police" in place of "The Interview." Yesterday, however, Paramount said they wouldn’t allow it. Fear is winning out over our free speech, even though times of fear are exactly when free speech must be most exercised and defended. 

At a time when studios are struggling – especially Sony’s film division, which some have rumored may not survive this whole ordeal – and the global box office tally comes first to the point "Transformers 4" was essentially a Chinese co-production complete with Chinese product placement, studios will be highly unlikely to fully support challenging and edgy films.

The indie market will be fine; not enough money is truly made there for studios to worry too much. But for big movies? If there’s the possibility of upsetting a particular group or a particular box office market, that movie is getting sanded down to oblivion or maybe not even made at all. You think Hollywood movies are tinkered with and group tested now? Just wait. A new era of marshmallow blockbuster cinema could be in effect. Forget digital projectors; they might as well send movies to theaters on 35mm strips of bubble wrap.

And all of this for what? For a sloppily written threat that couldn’t have been more vague? A threat that implied the film’s premiere would be attacked … after the premiere already happened? A threat that Homeland Security – a group dedicated to freaking out about these kind of situations – wasn’t even freaking out about? Did we really believe North Korea had agents implanted in America, prepared to place bombs at all of the major theaters across the nation?

I understand that I get to play Monday morning quarterback here, that if one thing went bad on Christmas Day – even if it was just a lone crazy man, unrelated to the hackers but seeking a spotlight – Sony would be liable. Or, since it allowed theaters to make the choice to show "The Interview," the theaters would be liable.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though; this wasn’t about the studios protecting anybody but themselves. The theater chain owners were protecting their crucial Christmas weekend sales. The other studios were protecting their big Christmas releases – as well as themselves from having the hackers’ crosshairs on them next. George Clooney said as much yesterday in an interview with Deadline. He tried to pass around a petition for studios to sign in support of Sony, but nobody would sign it.

And, of course, Sony was protecting itself. By shuttering "The Interview," the embarrassing hacks will hopefully end for the company (I hope media outlets had fun digging through the hackers’ stolen booty now that we know what the endgame was; I hope a laugh at Channing Tatum’s email was worth knowing you were essentially trading in terrorist goods). There was even a rumor going around after the cancellation that Sony wasn’t exactly prodding the theaters to take "The Interview."

As for "The Interview" itself, it takes its place in history: a rare shelved movie in this modern era, a critical piece in an unprecedented moment for free speech, cyber war and terrorism and a rare item that Michael Moore and Mitt Romney can agree upon. It won’t come out any time soon, as long as the threat of yet another hack attack lingers.

A VOD release – something studios have actually wanted to do for a while now – was quickly rumored after the theatrical release was sunk, but that won’t happen now, either. After all, as is being reported now, Sony’s insurance covers a total loss, not partial. Most cable and VOD distributors probably would turn it down anyways to avoid a hack, as well. Plus, why put a movie on a digital platform considering that’s the one place we certainly know the hackers have destructive capabilities? It'd be like trying to escape a shark by swimming deeper into the ocean. 

And all of this for a silly stoner bromance movie with a political edge.

It’s a sad, sad situation – sad for American free speech, sad for artistic creativity, sad for film, sad for audiences who wanted a laugh this Christmas. And perhaps the saddest thing of all is that we’ve given terrorists and the vicious, cruel dictator they were protecting a sense of victory and accomplishment. He is a weak leader, yet we just gave him power. They didn’t want us to see a movie, and now we won’t, at least for a moment taking away one of our proudest rights – free artistic and creative speech – as well as one of the most potent weapons against tyranny and abuse: laughter. 

The terrorists won all right. Their mission has been accomplished. And their victory will probably be felt for a while. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.