A slapstick movie comedy, starring two hilariously inept TV hosts sent on a highly improbable mission, has spiraled into an entertainment industry disaster with hacked emails, cancelled premieres and screenings, and a potentially serious national security threat.
The so-called cyber-terrorists "Guardians of Peace," have escalated their attack from a cyber hack on Sony emails and data and are now threatening moviegoers who watch "The Interview," with violence. The Sony movie, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, is about a pair of TV hosts who land an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and are asked by the US government to use their audience to assassinate him.
"We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places 'The Interview' (will) be shown, including the premier, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to," a note released by the group of hackers reads. "The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001."
In response to the threats, Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema canceled the film’s Tuesday evening New York premiere, and at least one major theater chain has decided not to screen the film.
Carmike Cinemas, the country's fourth largest cinema chain, has already opted not to show "The Interview." Carmike has 278 theaters in 41 states. Other major operators, including AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, have not yet announced their plans.
While Sony has said it will move forward with plans to release "The Interview" on Dec. 25, it has told theater owners they don't have to show the movie. And there are signs that theater operators are wary of screening it. As The Hollywood Reporter reported,"exhibitors are wary of becoming liable if they show the movie and any violence occurs."
How serious is the threat to moviegoers?
The FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security are investigating the hack and the threat, and it is being treated not just as a criminal cyber security issue, but as an issue of national security, also.
Thus far, Homeland Security has said "there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States."
Counterterrorism experts agree.
"Somebody is playing mind games with [SONY]," Richard Clarke, a cyber security expert and former White House counter-terrorism advisor, told ABC News. "I think North Korea has little or no capability to do any physical attacks, commando activity, or terrorism in the U.S. By saying it's coming, however, they hope to keep people from the theaters and, thereby, hurt Sony's revenue."
Matt Olsen, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the threat sounded more like "hooliganism" than anything really serious.
"You have to take these types of threats seriously up to a point, but this sounds more like a hoax," Olsen told ABC News.
Pressure to pull the “The Interview,” has centered on its depiction of Korean leader Kim’s assassination. Depicting the assassination of a sitting world leader, even comically, is almost without precedent in major studio movies.
The hacker group that calls itself "Guardians of Peace," which hacked Sony emails and data and also released the threatening note, has shown remarkable capacity to harm a major corporation, and some cite the North Korean regime as a prime suspect in the hack.
North Korea was added to the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 1988 for the bombing of the Korean Airlines flight the previous year. It was removed from the list in 2008, but the US State Department has indicated returning North Korea to the list is under continual review.
The hullabaloo about a comedic film has caught at least one person – one of the film's stars, Seth Rogen – by surprise.
"We just wanted to make a really funny, entertaining movie," Rogen said. "It wasn't meant to be controversial in any way."