It looks like a bitter Christmas for owners of major theatrical chains in the U.S., thanks to Sony Pictures Entertainment’s decision Tuesday for a limited release of “The Interview” in a few hundred independent cinemas — with a VOD release coming soon.
Exhibitors were already angry over last week’s move by Sony to make them the scapegoat for the Dec. 17 cancellation. Several executives told Variety that they only wanted the film’s premiere to be delayed or modified.
Following Sony’s announcement of a limited release for “The Interview,” the move is expected to only deepen the resentments that have emerged over the past week between the studio and major exhibition chains.
After the movie was pulled from theaters, the major chains expected not to show “The Interview” due to the plans for an imminent VOD release — violating the longstanding policy that major studios wait several months after a movie opens before distributing it on other platforms.
Now that Sony has officially put the movie back in theaters outside the major chains and coupled those plans with what could be a day-and-date VOD release, tensions have been aggravated further.
Theater owners were already incensed because they believe Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Michael Lynton blamed them unfairly last week for not showing the film.
After hackers threatened a 9/11-style attack on theaters that screened “The Interview,” Sony said in a statement last week that the majority of exhibitors cancelled their bookings — an assertion that’s been disputed by several exhibitors.
In his statement Wednesday, Lynton did not offer details on how soon the VOD release is coming.
“We have never given up on releasing ‘The Interview’ and we’re excited our movie will be in a number of theaters on Christmas Day,” he said. “At the same time, we are continuing our efforts to secure more platforms and more theaters so that this movie reaches the largest possible audience.”
Authorities have since said that North Korea is behind the hacking as punishment for Sony backing “The Interview,” which centers on a plot to kill the country’s leader Kim Jong-un.
Exhibitors have been especially perturbed by the Dec. 19 interview with CNN, during which 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.
The major chains may react by toughening up on the prices they’re willing to charge Sony for films, screen counts for its lower-profile films or the level of promotional support for Sony titles.
A spokesman for Sony declined to comment.
UPDATE, 2:20 p.m. PST — Landmark Theaters, which specializes in independent titles and operates 50 locations with 229 screens in the U.S., has issued a statement that it will not screen “The Interview” —
Landmark Theatres has no plans to play The Interview. Our theatres have been fully booked for months as there is an enormous amount of film already in the marketplace in addition to six new films opening on Christmas Day. It would never occur to us not to honor our existing commitments to our distribution partners during one of the busiest times in the year.
UPDATE, 6:38 p.m. — Sony Pictures domestic distribution president Rory Bruer has told Deadline.com that Sony has lined up over 300 theaters for “The Interview” and disputed that major exhibition chains are angry over how the situation has been handled.
“I have been totally open with exhibitors, every step of the way,” Bruer said. “My conversations have been really fruitful, with a total openness in regards to how we were moving forward. My relationship with exhibitors and the folks we do business with is very important and I wouldn’t take part in anything that would put that at risk. What you heard wasn’t what anybody has been saying back to me. If that had been the case, I would have brought it to the table at our company, big time, if I thought there was something that was going to harm our relationships. I don’t want that and neither do they. Everybody knew this was a tough situation, and they’ve shown a lot of understanding. Many of them offered to help us in anyway, and they understood that we had to do it any way we could to do what is best for our business. It has always been my intention to have excellent partnerships with major exhibitors and independents. We maintain strong partnerships.”
Brent Lang contributed to this report.