Sony strikes back - and rakes it in
SONY Pictures said The Interview has earned more than US$15 million (S$20 million) in online sales and another US$2.8 million in cinemas, an impressive return made possible by the publicity surrounding the cyber attack blamed on North Korea.
The raunchy comedy, which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, made almost as much money through online distribution and in limited cinemas in its opening weekend as it would have in a wide release that was shelved after threats from hackers.
On Sunday, the studio said the film had been purchased or rented online more than two million times on the four days through Saturday, making it Sony Pictures' No. 1 online movie of all time.
"That is a huge number," said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "This is almost what it was going to do theatrically before it was pulled. It made about what people expected, but in a completely different way."
The film that triggered the devastating cyber attack on the studio last month, which the United States said was launched by North Korea, opened on Thursday in 331 independent cinemas with a US$1 million box office and US$1.8 million over the subsequent three days, according to Sony. Many filmgoers and cinema owners said they supported the film in the name of free speech.
Had it gone to wide release, the US$44-million film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco would have expected to gross at least US$20 million in its opening holiday weekend, according to Boxoffice.com.
After large movie cinema chains like AMC and Regal Entertainment refused to screen the comedy, following threats of violence from hackers who opposed the film, Sony stitched together a limited release in cinemas and a US$5.99 video-on-demand (VOD) rental and US$14.99 purchase option on YouTube Movies, Google Play, Microsoft Xbox Video and a dedicated site that started on Wednesday.
Sony had been fiercely criticised by top Hollywood talent and US President Barack Obama for what many considered caving to the hackers. Sony maintained that it had no choice but to pull the wide release, and immediately began looking for alternative platforms with technology companies.
It was still unclear whether Sony, which is still struggling with the impact of the cyber attack, would recoup the money it spent to make the film and the US$30 million or US$40 million in estimated marketing costs.
But in a sign of the film's power and place in the cultural debate, Apple said on Sunday that it plans to carry the movie for rental and purchase on iTunes, the biggest and most popular online content store.
"The Apple component will be significant," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at tracking firm Rentrak. "I have heard anecdotes of people who have never downloaded a movie on iTunes doing that for this movie."
The Interview is now considered by experts a test case for simultaneous VOD and cinematic release, a taboo topic for the movie cinema chains that want to retain their exclusive window.
"It'll be interesting to see how quickly (the) industry moves forward with these kinds of services," Mr Bock said. "This is money they don't need to share with the movie chains and that's a big deal. It could shake a lot of things up."
The film's unconventional rollout has also been a hot topic on social media. Rogen took to Twitter on Sunday to live tweet a viewing of The Interview, in which Rogen and Franco play journalists who snag an interview with Kim, and are then enlisted by the Central Intelligence Agency to take him out.
"It's at this point that I gotta say it's (expletive) weird I am watching this on TV right now," Rogen tweeted.