[UPDATE: More theater chains have declined to screen The Interview.]
[UPDATE #2: Most major theater chains have now dropped The Interview.]
To date, the unprecedented hack of Sony's servers has already had a tremendous impact on the studio. Prints of films have been leaked (and others could follow), plans for potential upcoming films have been made public, the entire screenplay for the James Bond film Spectre was leaked, and agencies bankrolling Sony productions had to stop film shoots when they were unable to transfer payments. But today, the cyber attack took a rather shocking and disturbing twist.
If you're not already aware, the organization that was allegedly behind the hack, "Guardians of Peace," issued a terrorist threat, invoking memories of 9/11 when discussing the violence they would bring upon movie theaters that showed the comedy film The Interview (which features James Franco and Seth Rogen attempting to assassinate North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un). In their message, they warned those who lived nearby the multiplexes screening the movie to leave their homes and said that "the world will be full of fear."
While some security agencies (including Homeland Security) have said that the probability of a widespread attack happening is very low, it was still a great cause for concern for moviegoers and theater owners - especially during Christmas when movie business typically booms. Rival executives feared that the threats would affect people's plans to go to the theater during that week, which would have a domino effect on all the studios looking to score high grosses from releases such as Unbroken and Into the Woods.
Sony hasn't formally pulled the movie from theaters yet, but they have given theater owners permission to cancel screenings if they so please. Shortly after, Carmike Cinemas, one of America's largest chains with 247 locations across the nation, took advantage of that deal and decided to remove all showings. As of now, no other theater chains have followed suit, but Carmike has definitely set a precedent and it will be interesting to see how this story develops.
UPDATE: Variety is now reporting that Bow Tie Cinemas - a theater chain based in Colorado, Connecticut, Virginia and New York - has also declined to show The Interview. Bow Tie CEO Ben Moss has publicly commented on the decision, having said that "The safety and comfort of our patrons is foremost in our minds."
The removal of The Interview from theaters is sure to raise several ethical issues (giving in to terrorist threats, First Amendment issues), as well as creating a mess of a business situation for Sony. Last year, the studio lost a substantial amount of money and needs to come up with $100.5 million just to repair their servers and get the computers back online. Simply put, they need to make cash quickly, and a high profile comedy could help them do that.
However, if theater owners are not going to screen it, then they will be hard-pressed to generate that revenue. Admittedly, Carmike is just one chain, but those 247 theaters have more than 2,900 screens - so the projected opening weekend numbers for The Interview will take a major hit even if they're the only holdouts.
Sony would obviously like to keep the theatrical release as (mostly) scheduled, since The Interview represents one of their biggest investments this season. The $44 million production budget isn't huge when compared to other titles, but the studio was banking on it being a major hit after the success of Neighbors and This is the End (two Rogen vehicles heavily featured in marketing) and the controversial premise generated a lot of attention. If Sony were to completely forgo the release, it would be forfeiting at least $100 million, which would put them in an even bigger hole than they are now.
Regardless of what happens from here, it would appear that The Interview is damaged goods for a company that desperately needed a positive development. The fact that Franco and Rogen had canceled their press tour wasn't going to hurt its box office prospects that much (since awareness was already high), but now that one theater organization has opted to not show it at all, it remains to be seen how far this will all go and how much of a loss the studio will take on their investment.
We'll keep you updated on this story as more develops.
The Interview will hit theaters December 25 (for now).
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.
Update source: Variety