“The Interview” has managed to rise phoenix-like from the wreckage of its theatrical debut on the strength of its video-on-demand and digital rentals and sales.
Despite being at the center of a massive corporate hacking attack and the source of terrorist threats, the film has brought in an impressive $31 million from online retailers, cable, telco and satellite providers in its first eleven days. It appears to be the biggest simultaneous on-demand and theatrical release in history, easily trumping past high-water marks such as “Arbitrage” and “The Bachelorette.”
“It’s a huge out-performer, but what it lacked in exposure through a big theatrical run, it gained in front page coverage in every paper in the country,” said Tom Adams, a home entertainment analyst and president of Tom Adams Research.
Its success is precedent-shattering. However, the film will not burst open the doors on a brave new world of film distribution to make it safe for major productions with big name stars to piggyback on their theatrical release by premiering in the home at the same time. The circumstances surrounding it are too unique.
By the time “The Interview” was pulled from major theater chains and then reconstructed as a limited art house and independent release it was deep into a national marketing and promotional campaign. Films that opt to premiere on-demand do not typically have a $30 million marketing spend behind them. The economics don’t justify it.
Plus, the film had the kind of awareness around it that studios can’t and wouldn’t want to buy. News reports that “The Interview” and its plot centering on the assassination of Kim Jong-un had inspired North Korea to breach Sony’s cyber defenses and leak company emails and financial information resulted in weeks of breathless media coverage. The film’s cancellation and resurrection turned it into a rallying point for free speech advocates.
“It’s not replicable,” said Seth Willenson, a studio consultant. “It’s trying to create a paradigm when it’s just an exception to the rule.”
The furor around “The Interview” threatened to overshadow another intriguing and promising experiment in exhibition — Imax’s decision to run episodes of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” on its screens for a limited run this month along with an exclusive peek at the show’s upcoming season. It’s the kind of test that’s unlikely to threaten theater chains, unlike Imax’s earlier flirtation with releasing a sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in conjunction with its Netflix debut.
Content, preferably of the irresistible variety, is what drives people to get up off their couches, power off their cellphones and retreat to the confines of a theater for a few hours. At this point, television shows such as “Homeland” and “The Walking Dead” inspire just as ardent a fan base as many blockbuster films. Other networks have reached out to Imax about possible collaborations, suggesting that the “Game of Thrones” launch could be the kind of pioneer that “The Interview” will not be.
Unlike “The Interview,” the release of “Game of Thrones” is complementary, not threatening. Movie theaters believe that limiting their exclusive access to a film by hastening its home entertainment debut is an existential challenge to their business model. Why hit the multiplexes when you can wait a few weeks to see it at home?
However, the episodes of “Game of Thrones” have already been aired and they will bring people into theaters in January, which is traditionally a slow period for the industry. Because they’ve been shown, it won’t encourage HBO subscribers to cut the cord, something that could undermine its revenues. There are a limited number of Imax screens, so the promotional aspect of the event will be more important than its grosses.
“It’s unique premium content that fits in well with Imax’s core fanboy audience and for HBO it’s a great marketing tool to reach non-subscribers,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners.
Both events demonstrate that old barriers are collapsing and the movie business remains in flux. “The Interview’s” strong sales and rentals indicate that the public has embraced the convenience of digital film distribution, while “Game of Thrones'” Imax premiere reflects the cinematic quality of many major television programs.
Change isn’t just coming. It’s here.