The Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy "The Interview" would never be confused with high art or classic film drama.
But just days before its release in theaters around the country, the tale of a pair of TV journalists involved in a CIA plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has taken a real-life dramatic turn involving a terrorist threat from a shadowy group calling itself “Guardians of Peace.”
As a result, hundreds of theaters around the country pulled the plug on the film. Sony Pictures Entertainment then announced Wednesday that it was canceling the Christmas Day release. Hollywood insiders say the film could go straight to DVD and Blu-ray or perhaps video on demand via the Internet.
Until this week, “Guardians of Peace” had limited itself to corporate espionage, hacking the computers of Sony Pictures Entertainment, embarrassing studio execs for their snide remarks about Hollywood stars, revealing company spreadsheets, and setting off lawsuits by employees whose personal and financial information had been hacked. North Korea, never known for its sense of humor, is the prime suspect. On Wednesday evening, The New York Times reported that intelligence officials confirmed that the North Korean government was in fact behind the attacks.
But on Tuesday, “Guardians of Peace” escalated its attack on “The Interview,” posting a message on the text-sharing site Pastebin: “The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)”
Most experts don’t think North Korea – if, indeed, that’s the culprit – has the capability to launch an attack on the United States of 9/11 proportions. But the mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 by a heavily-armed lone gunman, who killed 12 people and wounded 70 others, does bring to mind the potential vulnerability of hundreds of patrons in a darkened theater.
Within hours, major theater groups – Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark USA, Carmike Cinemas, and Cineplex Entertainment – began announcing that they had decided against showing the film.
"Due to the wavering support of the film 'The Interview' by Sony Pictures, as well as the ambiguous nature of any real or perceived security threats, Regal Entertainment Group has decided to delay the opening of the film,” Regal said in a statement Wednesday.
In a statement, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) elaborated:
“While we do not discuss security procedures or policies, NATO members are working closely with the appropriate security and law enforcement agencies. We are encouraged that the authorities have made progress in their investigation and we look forward to the time when the responsible criminals are apprehended. Until that happens, individual cinema operators may decide to delay exhibition of the movie so that our guests may enjoy a safe holiday movie season experiencing the many other exciting films we have to offer.”
So where does that leave Sony, which spent $42 million making the film? It’s possible the company still could release “The Interview” in theaters, or it could go straight to DVD and Blu-Ray.
Variety reports that Sony Pictures Entertainment is weighing releasing the film on premium video-on-demand (VOD).
“That would allow the studio to recoup some of the film’s $42 million budget and tens of millions in promotion and advertising expenditures,” according to Variety. “It would also enable the studio to experiment with the potential of VOD, something it has been hesitant to do at the risk of angering major exhibitors. Traditionally, films must wait 90 days before they are released on home entertainment platforms.”
As major theater groups bailed out, Sony issued its own statement.
“Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like,” Sony said. “We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”