Amid a swell of controversy, backlash, confusion and threats from hackers, Sony Pictures broadly released “The Interview” Wednesday – an unprecedented move completely reversing the studio’s previous plan to shelve the comedy, which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“It has always been Sony’s intention to have a national platform on which to release this film,” said Sony Pictures chair and CEO Michael Lynton in a statement. “We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day, and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release.”
“The Interview” became available for rental on a variety of digital platforms Wednesday afternoon, including Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft’s Xbox Video and a separate Sony website, Sony Pictures announced.
On demand availability means easier access for viewers – and may further erode the studio’s symbiotic relationship with theaters: A day earlier, Sony and independent theaters agreed to release the movie in over 300 venues Thursday. The three largest theater chains have been largely silent since deciding not to show the film, which was originally set to open on Christmas on up to 3,000 screens.
Seth Rogen, who stars in the film he co-directed with Evan Goldberg, cheered the decision.
“I need to say that a comedy is best viewed in a theater full of people, so if you can, I’d watch it like that. Or call some friends over,” he tweeted.
Sony’s initial decision not to release the film was widely criticized, with President Barack Obama one of Sony’s harshest critics.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama welcomed the news.
“As the president made clear on Friday, we do not live in a country where a foreign dictator can start imposing censorship here in the United States. With today’s announcements, people can now make their own choices about the film, and that’s how it should be,” Schultz said.
Among the early viewers was 11-year-old Marco Squitieri of Washington, D.C. Squitieri had wanted to see “The Interview” since seeing a preview earlier this year and had followed the news about Sony pulling the movie, then permitting its release. Squitieri’s family purchased “The Interview” from Xbox for $14.99.
“It’s pretty funny,” Squitieri told The Associated Press, laughing as he praised the chemistry of Rogen and Franco and adding that he could understand why the North Korean government wouldn’t like it. “They make fun of North Korea a lot.”
The move to make the film available for rental and purchase before its theatrical release had never before been done with a mainstream film. Studios have released smaller indie and foreign movies simultaneously in theaters and on digital platforms, but analysts said the situation with “The Interview” left Sony little choice.
“This isn’t being done because Sony wants to do it regularly, but rather out of necessity prompted by the exhibitor boycott,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. “The only guys showing it are independent chains.”
“Sony is in a delicate situation here since they normally never go this route with a major film, but theater chains also know this is a unique back-against-the-wall situation,” added Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com.
It’s challenging to put a figure on how much Sony might benefit financially from releasing the movie on demand, Pandya said.
But he said all the attention “The Interview” has had over the past month has likely boosted the curiosity level for movie goers and will lead to “strong averages from the limited theatrical release plus solid VOD sales over the holidays.” He expects the interest to fade away in early January.
But for now, the curiosity and enthusiasm is still palpable. Tyler Pulsifer, manager of the Hartford Spotlight Theaters in Hartford, Conn., said he had received 32 calls from people interested in seeing “The Interview” during the first 90 minutes the theater was open on Christmas Eve.
“I’d be willing to bet we’re going to sell out,” Pulsifer said. The theater has four showings on Christmas, and five each for Friday and Saturday nights.
“People want to see it because they’ve been told not to,” he said.
For some, the decision to show the film hasn’t been the smoothest process. Stephanie Putnam, assistant manager of the Greendale Cinema in Lawrence, Indiana, still isn’t sure whether her theater will be able to show the movie on Christmas – it hasn’t received it from the distributor yet. As a result, tickets haven’t been on sale, but there have been several calls from customers who have expressed interested in seeing it.
Releasing “The Interview” could potentially cause a response from the hackers, who called themselves the Guardians of Peace. There have been none of the embarrassing data leaks of Sony emails since the movie’s release was delayed. In a message last week to the studio, the hackers said Sony’s data would be safe so long as the film was never distributed.
Google showed its support with a post on its official blog, saying the company “could not sit on the sidelines.”
“Of course it was tempting to hope that something else would happen to ensure this movie saw the light of day. But after discussing all the issues, Sony and Google agreed that we could not sit on the sidelines and allow a handful of people to determine the limits of free speech in another country (however silly the content might be). “
Lynton said the release represented the company’s commitment to free speech.
“While we couldn’t have predicted the road this movie traveled to get to this moment, I’m proud our fight was not for nothing and that cyber criminals were not able to silence us,” he said.
Frazier Moore, David Bauder and Hillel Italie in New York, Mae Anderson in Atlanta and Josh Lederman in Honolulu contributed to this story.