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‘The Interview’ Fallout: Theater Owners Angry at Sony for Shifting Blame

Theater owners are incensed that Sony Pictures Entertainment has insisted in public statements that they are the major reason the studio canceled the release of “The Interview.”

Exhibitors believe that they are being made the scapegoat for the cancellation when many of them only wanted the film’s premiere to be delayed or modified, three theater industry executives tell Variety.

After hackers threatened theaters that screened “The Interview” and moviegoers who bought tickets to the film while evoking the memory of 9/11, Sony said in a statement last week that the majority of exhibitors cancelled their bookings. That characterization has been disputed in exhibition circles. The exhibition executives said that several chains asked only to delay playing the movie until the authorities could discover who was behind the message or had apprehended the criminals who hacked the studio.

Authorities have since said that North Korea is behind the hackings as punishment for Sony backing “The Interview,” which centers on a plot to kill the country’s leader Kim Jong-un.

In an interview with CNN on Friday, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton said, “The only decision that we have made with respect to release of the film was not to release it on Christmas Day in theaters, after the theater owners declined to show it…Without theaters, we could not release it in the theaters on Christmas Day. We had no choice.”

His remarks came after President Barack Obama said Sony had made a “mistake” in pulling the film because it emboldened the North Korean hackers who have tormented the studio for weeks. Lynton said Sony still hopes to release the film.

Following his interview on CNN, Lynton reached out the heads of major theater chains such as Carmike, Regal and AMC by phone to say that he had not meant to imply they were wholly responsible for the film being pulled and that he understood their safety concerns. Those conversations were civil on both sides, according to individuals with knowledge.

His words may not have done enough to assuage feelings across the exhibition industry. Among the repercussions being weighed are that some exhibitors will refuse to pay Sony the film terms they once did or will decline to guarantee the same screen counts for its lower profile films. They may also be more lax when it comes to promoting Sony films on their websites or in their theaters with posters and other materials. These potential measures have yet to be communicated to Sony.

Sony Pictures still hopes to release “The Interview” by the end of 2014, but the comedy will likely forgo a theatrical release, according to a source close to studio.

Instead, the film will be made available through a patchwork of electronic sell through, video on demand and other home entertainment platforms, the source said. There may be some road blocks. No major distributor has signed on yet and some have expressed concerns that they will be targeted by the hackers who have terrorized Sony for weeks if they carry the picture.

Even if the film secures enough distribution platforms, it may have difficulty recouping the roughly $75 million the studio spent to make and market the picture.

There will also be ruffled feathers to smooth over with theater owners, particularly those that dispute Sony’s claims that their refusal to show the picture led the studio to pull the film. Some theater chains, including Canadian chain Cineplex, suggested opening the film in limited release in a few key markets over the holidays in order to gauge if threats were real. Others, such as Carmike, were careful to say in public statements that they were delaying the release.

Instead of postponing the release or doing a limited rollout, Sony said Wednesday that it had no further release plans for the film — a position it has since modified.

A spokesman for Sony declined to comment.

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