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Sony salvages 'The Interview'—but the terrorists still won

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Sony Pictures (SNE) has tried to declare victory by touting the successful digital release of its controversial film, The Interview. But the terrorists who tried to squash the film probably feel pretty satisfied with what they accomplished.

Sony says the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy, in which the CIA recruits two hapless journalists to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was downloaded more than 2 million times in 5 days, generating $15 million in revenue. That makes it Sony’s highest-grossing online release ever, a fact news outlets have reported as if a promising new era of moviemaking has dawned.

Sony earned an additional $3 million from the 331 theaters gutsy enough to show The Interview during its opening weekend, adding to the fiction that Sony somehow profited from threats to commit violence at theaters showing the film. In reality, Sony lost big and terrorists now have a new model for how to intimidate America.

Managing to persuade 331 theaters to show the The Interview was certainly better than canning the release of the film altogether. But Sony originally slated the film to appear on about 3,000 screens when it debuted on Dec. 25. When a group calling itself Guardians of Peace warned of a replay of the 9-11 terrorist attacks if the film made it out, five chains representing the vast majority of movie screens—Regal (RGC), AMC (AMC), Cinemark (CNK), Carmike Cinemas (CKEC) and Cineplex ( CGX.TO)—caved and chose not to show the film.

Independent theaters lobbied for the release of the film, which led to the limited rollout. But the big chains are still on the sidelines. So the terrorist threat—which the government says emanated from North Korea—cut distribution of The Interview by roughly 90%. It’s not a complete blackout, but it’s a remarkable rollback given that the Department of Homeland Security said it detected no credible threat of actual violence. If copycat anarchists don’t catch on, we’ll be extremely lucky.

Sony also seems to be downplaying the financial loss it’s likely to suffer on The Interview. The $18 million or so Sony pulled in during the film’s first weekend is far short of the $40 million to $60 million in early box-office receipts forecasters expected before the furor over the film erupted in mid-December. The $18 million in online revenue is a nice consolation prize, but considering how much free publicity The Interview got, it would be considered a flop by ordinary Hollywood standards, as Mike Santoli and I discuss in the video above.

Sony spent about $75 million to make The Interview. The studio will continue to earn revenue on the film, from rentals and limited theater showings, but it’s hard to see anything about the film that any studio would ever want to mimic. If anything, studios will probably make doubly sure they’re not courting the sort of controversy this filmgenerated, leading to even blander Hollywood offerings than we have now.

So with a few threatening words and some hacker know-how, a group of malcontents we haven’t even fully identified caused a major Hollywood studio tens of millions in losses and disrupted the entertainment available to many Americans during a busy holiday weekend. The underdog is no hero in this drama, but he’s pushing the big guys around anyway.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.