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Sony Tells Theater Owners They Can Pull ‘The Interview’

Sony has told theater owners they can pull “The Interview” if they want to — the decision lies in their hands. Exhibitors are considering whether they should pull the film in advance of its wide release this Christmas, but Sony remains committed to the planned opening.

Multiplex owners were caught by surprise Tuesday after hackers evoked the memory of 9/11 while threatening theaters that play the comedy about an attempted assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The studio has remained mum on the latest message from the hackers and the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying they have not yet discovered evidence of an active plot against U.S. theaters.

Some theater owners were adamant that they wouldn’t change plans.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Tom Stephenson, CEO of Look Cinemas. “If they play it, we’ll show it. Sony has a right to make the movie, we have a right to play it and censorship in general is a bad thing.”

The majority of theater owners reached by Variety declined to comment publicly, but most said they still planned to show the film, but would take additional security measures. One owner confessed that he was still processing the note and had yet to reach a decision.

Stocks for the country’s four largest theater chains — AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Carmike — all fell after news of the threat broke.

In the interim, “The Interview” stars Seth Rogen and James Franco cancelled all media appearances on Tuesday and Wednesday, but still plan to attend at the New York premiere on Thursday.

Exhibition industry analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners said it is still unclear if the threats have any merit, and said he doesn’t think theaters will take the step of pulling out of showing the film without more concrete evidence.

“It ultimately comes down to security,” said Handler. “If there are concerns about actual terrorist acts than you have to think about pulling it…but there is no evidence that this cyber attack will escalate to anything above or beyond that.”

Executives at rival studios are concerned that the threats will dampen attendance during one of the busiest moviegoing periods of the year. There’s also concern about isolated incidents stemming from those who might be inspired by the broad coverage of the threats raised by the Sony hackers.

Regardless of whether or not the threats turn out to be idle, security experts say that the hackers message underscores vulnerabilities at entertainment venues. It was a danger that was brought brutally home two years ago when James Holmes opened fire during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado killing 12 people, and one that may factor into theater owners minds when it comes to showing “The Interview.”

“We haven’t done enough to enhance security in places where people gather,” said Todd McGhee, president of Protecting the Homeland Innovations and a trainer of the anti-terrorism unit at Boston’s Logan International Airport. “We’ve done a lot to harden our security around infrastructure, mass transit and airports, but we’ve left a lot of our private sector vulnerable.”

On Sony’s Culver City lot, security measures have been stepped up substantially since the hackers first breached the company’s cyber defenses over two weeks ago. There is more of a security presence at all the gate entrances and employees have been told that there’s more measures that are in place that are not visible. A telephone tip line has also been set up internally for people to report any suspicious activity.

The general feeling on the lot, insiders say, is one of exhaustion and a deepening anxiety about what shoe will drop next.

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