While still reeling from the massive cyber attack that hit the studio last month, Sony Pictures has managed to retool the release of The Interview in a matter of days.
Having said on Dec. 17 that it had “no further release plans” for the hot potato of a movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, it has now lined up about 300 independent theaters that are opening the movie Christmas Day and has engineered an unprecedented VOD release for a major studio with the help of YouTube, Google Play and Xbox, all of which began offering the movie today. But in doing so, it also has alienated most of the larger chains and even annoyed some of owners of the smaller theaters that, from the first, sprang to the movie’s defense.
Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton angered many in the exhibition community on Dec. 19 when he was interviewed on CNN. Responding to President Barak Obama‘s charge earlier in the day that the studio “made a mistake” in initially canceling the movie’s wide release scheduled for Dec. 25, Lynton appeared to be blaming theater owners for the studio’s decision, saying it came about “as a result of the majority of the nation’s theater owners choosing not to screen the film. This was their decision.”
Tim Massett, who owns the Sun-Ray Cinema in Jacksonville, Fla., which is among the theaters that will begin showing the movie Christmas Day, felt Lynton was dismissing the smaller theaters who had been willing to show the movie even after the larger chains bowed out of the original release plan.
“My film reps said we were still confirmed for The Interview after the big five circuits [said they would not play it on Dec. 25], but then Sony pulled the film out from under me,” Massett said in an interview with THR. “And then when I heard Lynton’s comments, I was irritated. I didn’t like it that 300 or more independent theaters weren’t really considered theaters.”
After hearing Lynton’s remarks, Massett promptly emailed Tim League, of the Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse chain and a longtime advocate for independently owned cinemas. On Monday, Dec. 22, a group representing theaters like Alamo and the Sun-Ray wrote an open letter to Sony and launched an online petition, requesting the right to show the film.
Christian Parkes, chief brand officer for Alamo, told THR that Sony has been a strong ally. “I think Sony has been placed in an impossible, difficult situation, and they were beaten down. It’s easy in hindsight to guess what should have been done,” she said. “We are really, really happy to be playing the film, and we wanted to draw a line in the sand about freedom of expression. This is way bigger than one film, or Sony.”
The larger theater chains, however, aren’t ready to give Sony a pass so quickly. Accusing the studio of “throwing its major exhibition partners under the bus,” an executive at one of the nation’s major chains said today that the studio “continues to speak out of both sides of their mouth.”
Although the executive wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, his thinking sheds light on how much Sony has alienated the major theater chains and how that could negatively impact the studio’s dealing with exhibitors down the road when it has to bargain for favorable terms and release dates for its upcoming movies. Although he acknowledged that he and many of his colleagues sympathized with Sony after it was hit by the cyber attack, he continued, “I don’t know what the bigger joke is, the way Sony has handled the process or that Sony would think we’re not sore. They continue to tell us one thing and do another.”
The National Association of Theater Owners, the trade association that reps exhibitors, had no comment today on The Interview‘s day-and-date release plan. Sony executives, including worldwide president of distribution Rory Bruer, was not not available for comment, either.
But according to a number of exhibitors, Lynton mischaracterized their concerns when he spoke with CNN. Exhibitors never told Sony they wanted the studio to pull the film, they contend. Rather, they asked the studio either to adopt a more limited platform release or to delay the movie’s release until a later date so that the FBI and other authorities could determine if the hackers, who have been linked to North Korea, posed a genuine threat. When Sony did not agree to those proposals, they say, the major chains declined to go along with the original Dec. 25 opening.
After the CNN interview, Lynton “called us to apologize for appearing to assign blame. He then said the movie wouldn’t be released theatrically, and that there would be no VOD release without coordinating with exhibitors,” the executive said.
But, he added, Sony did not coordinate its next movies with major exhibitors before making its surprise announcement on Dec. 23 that The Interview would get a day-and-date release in theaters and on video-on-demand, a practice the major exhibitors refuse to be part of. And, for them, that became the breaking point. “The only thing Sony has said that was true was they wanted to do what’s best for their business. What they left out was that they were able to do this by throwing their exhibition partners under the bus. We’re not going to simply forget about this,” the executive vowed.
Sony, of course, may have had other things on its mind: As it quickly lined up its new online partners, it also had to work overtime to send hard drives containing the film overnight to the theaters that will be showing it. Even with 300 theaters now committed, there will be limits on the amount of screen time the movie gets over the holiday weekend. Since many of the theaters carrying The Interview, such as the Sun-Ray, committed screens to other films after it looked as if Sony was canceling the release, they will now be squeezing The Interview into afternoon and late-night showings. Many of the theaters are also planning to beef up security, adopting rules like not allowing backpacks, at their own expense since Sony is not contributing to added security costs.
While Sony has had to withstand an onslaught of second-guessing from everyone from movie fans to politicians, the Monday-morning quarterbacking isn’t likely to stop now that the movie is getting a modified release. “The best thing possible would have been for Sony to show leadership and delay, not cancel, The Interview,” said another high-level industry executive. “I feel for them, but Lynton has been all over the map.”