What Sony and the NFL Have in Common

One of the things I am looking forward to in the new year is the movie version of "Sony Gets Hacked." It has all the elements of a blockbuster: intrigue and international espionage; dark techie powers and rogue states; plenty of human drama and celebrities; and, of course, tension in the executive suite -- a Hollywood board room at that. Throw in a cameo by the president of the United States and the bumbling of well-paid executives: "We WILL show the picture"... "Euh...we won't show it"... "Oops! By golly, this is America! We WILL show it!"... and we are virtually guaranteed a hit.

There are only a few details to be ironed out before hiring a screenwriter, especially this: Who are the good guys in this picture? In fact, are there any good guys?

And then there is the problem of when to release the movie. A picture in the same genre is already planned featuring the hapless actions of the NFL. Intrigue, bumbling executives, plenty of celebrity power and some great action shots: football plays interspersed with real tragedy as well as bad judgment. And the same problem for the writers: Where are the good guys?

What's the fix? In both these stories, greed trumps common sense -- and good judgment. We are especially missing the critical role that trade associations must play when private interests compete with the public good.

Trade groups -- like the National Football League and Motion Picture Association of America -- play a complicated but important role in the world of entertainment that includes sports. The NFL serves as league disciplinarian, meting out fines for on- and off-the field offenses. The MPAA provides movies with ratings and has long been too lenient about portraying violence on the screen. These two organizations sit between the members who pay the bills and the license to operate in the public sphere.

To succeed at the long game, and when things get out of control, the leadership of the trade association needs to step into the sand box. There are private interests and public interests at play but ultimately, the public interest -- the license to operate -- trumps. A well-functioning trade association keeps things on an even keel.

The failure of both the NFL and the MPAA to take on the issues like violence on the screen and violence on and off the field -- diminishes the industry overall.

The good news for Sony-the-Company is that the real-life motion picture that stirred up all the trouble will now become a real blockbuster in its own right. Rotten Tomatoes gave The Interview -- featuring the faux assassination of the ruler of North Korea -- a big "splat" at 53 percent, but 96 percent of those polled before wide release wanted to see it anyway. Front-page coverage for weeks on end will pretty much guarantee that the company will earn back the $40 million-plus it took to make the film.

That is, unless you add in the full cost of managing events that have ensued since the plot line of the movie became known and triggered an international incident: mega-hacking of sensitive information, physical threats to potential theatre-goers, promises from the White House to get to the bottom of who is responsible and a major debacle surrounding the ethics of releasing, or not releasing, the movie itself. (Although Sony won't have to carry all the real costs -- We-the-People can expect to pay for police protection at movie houses in defense of our ideals about freedom to speak, even if it's in bad taste.)

When money and judgment collide today, it seems we pretty much always go with the money.

Maybe the events of the last year will allow for new leaders to emerge in these two significant industries that define American culture and taste and contribute to our reputation across the globe. For industry leaders to succeed, they need both the respect of their members and power to negotiate this complex sphere of public and private interests. But to attract the best leaders might also require a new job description -- one that puts the public sphere first.