Top Film Industry Stories of 2014 #1:
That Awkward Interview
January 9, 2015

I mean, we just thought we were making a stoner movie.

Our top film industry story of 2014 wasn’t even a story until late November, and even then, we didn’t know it would be the story of the year. In November, when the news of the Sony hack started to emerge, the ostensible reason given for the hostile activity toward the corporation was the impending release of the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview. At the time, it seemed silly, but let’s just say that… things escalated quickly.

You would have to be living under a rock to not understand that the threats were ostensibly coming from North Korea (a fact still under debate) because of objections to the film’s depiction of the assassination of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Since this is a guy who has threatened the United States with a nuclear strike and who inexplicably hangs out with former NBA star Dennis Rodman, his mercurial reaction to a dumb movie that lampoons him shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone (assuming that North Korea is in fact responsible for the hack, a point still being debated in national security circles).

Things began innocuously enough, as the cyber-attackers first revealed confidential details pertaining to Rogen and Franco’s salaries for The Interview. The hackers, who called themselves the Guardians of the Peace (GOP), had previously leaked new Sony films such as Annie and Fury along with personal data and salary information for Sony’s top executives, so this behavior was right in line with their modus operandi so far.

The situation became grimmer a couple of days later. Sony employees and their families were threatened via email, followed by another missive from the GOP that denied sending the warning, but nonetheless stated, “Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War!” Even as Sony was being forced to reexamine their own security, the issue was becoming something much more culturally significant.

Then, on December 16th, the most aggressive threat arrived as the GOP warned, “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.) Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.” This chilling invocation of the tragedy that occurred over a decade ago would set off a chain of events that transformed The Interview from just another middling Seth Rogen comedy to a symbol of free speech and defiance against terrorism.

I should pause at this point to note that as more and more details of the Sony hack were revealed, we began talking around the BOP offices about whether it merited a spot on the Top Film Industry Stories of 2014 list. We had already established our stories (for the most part) starting in late November and early December, but suddenly it felt like the hack was an absolutely critical inclusion. As December progressed, we went from, “Yeah, maybe it should be a story” to “Actually, the Sony hack should probably be our #1 story” to “Whoa. The Sony hack is one story, and The Interview is another story all on its own.”

Once the cyberterrorists of GOP announced intent to inflict bodily harm and reminded us all too much of The Dark Knight Rises shooting, there was little doubt that the furor around The Interview’s release/non-release not only deserved its own story, but that it was the most significant film industry topic of the year.

There were immediate repercussions after the threat to exhibitors who planned to play The Interview. Right off the bat, Rogen and Franco cancelled all media appearances for the film. Not only that, but the New York premiere was called off as well. Only a day later, Regal Cinemas, Cinemark, Cineplex, AMC Theaters, Carmike and Bow Tie Cinemas all dropped The Interview from their Christmas Day release plans. Other smaller theater chains also were involved in pulling the film off their screens. With very few venues willing to show the movie (there are a few notable exceptions that we’ll discuss in a moment), Sony felt their hands were tied. On December 17th, they announced that The Interview would be cancelled, and that they had no plans to ever release it in any format.

The media uproar that followed was louder than a Spinal Tap concert turned up to 11. Celebrities both within the movie industry and without expressed their displeasure at Sony’s capitulation to terrorists. Michael Moore said, “Dear Sony Hackers: now that u run Hollywood, I'd also like less romantic comedies, fewer Michael Bay movies and no more Transformers.” Rogen’s mentor Judd Apatow asked, “What if an anonymous person got offended by something an executive at Coke said. Will we all have to stop drinking Coke?” And Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin went off on an epic rant, calling Sony craven and cowardly (and also offering up his own theater, the Jean Cocteau Cinema, as an exhibitor for the film).

Of course those comments stung, but then President Obama threw his hat into the ring. "I wish they had spoken to me first," he said. "I would have told them do not get into a pattern in which you're intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks." The cancellation of The Interview had crossed from simple pop culture territory into the political realm. The movie, which came from the guys who brought you such high art as Superbad and This Is the End, had become everyone’s everything. If you were on social media, it was impossible to scroll through your feed without seeing a comment along the lines of “How dare North Korea tell me what I can and cannot watch!” Some people even called for boycotts of Sony’s future films, a prospect that likely made the hackers chortle with glee.

The fallout for Sony was swift, as the theater chains expressed their displeasure at Sony foisting the blame onto them for the entire debacle. Even so, it was clear that the risk management departments at the likes of Regal and Cinemark had weighed the pros and cons of releasing the film and determined that it wasn’t worth assuming the liability on the off chance that something did happen.

Through it all, though, smaller exhibitors like Martin’s Jean Cocteau and the Alamo Drafthouse continued to offer their theaters as locations to show The Interview. Eventually, their persistence paid off. Sony agreed to return the film to its December 25th release date, showing it in a much-smaller-than-planned 331 locations including the Drafthouse chain and Martin’s theater. It earned $2.9 million in the four days between Christmas Day and Sunday, and has so far accumulated $5.4 million in theatrical release.

At the same time, The Interview became the biggest day and date title ever. Sony put together agreements with YouTube, Google Play and Microsoft Xbox to show the movie on demand, and by December 28th, it had been downloaded 20 million times and earned $15 million. After Christmas weekend had ended, Sony forged deals with additional outlets including iTunes, cable VOD services, Vudu, Direct TV and AT&T U-verse. The most recent number reported for online rentals and sales of The Interview was $31 million on January 8th, and it’s reasonable to expect that it will continue to tally up impressive earnings. Consider that they were able to make this much without an advance strategy and that much of what was accomplished was done on the fly (albeit with an outrageous amount of publicity). What could a studio like Sony do with an organized plan?

With the hubbub surrounding The Interview bringing new people into the VOD fold, the answer to that question probably means that we’ll see some bolder tests in the coming months. We’ve chronicled the rise of day and date titles in previous years, but up until The Interview became the biggest entertainment story of 2014, the standard bearers were movies like Snowpiercer, Abritrage, Margin Call and Veronica Mars. There can be little doubt that the money earned by The Interview will give studios the financial incentive to venture deeper into the murky waters of day and date releases.

The Interview’s tendrils reached out far, and we may have yet to see all of the ramifications of its impact. That’s pretty impressive for a movie where the lead character bonds with a villainous North American leader over their mutual love of the Katy Perry song “Firework.”