Randall Park, center, plays North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un in 'The Interview.'
The Interview, for all its build up and controversy, could be the canary that Hollywood studios watch as they navigate the perils of more quickly making movies available online.
By releasing the movie on Google and Microsoft's Xbox streaming services, among others, Sony has given Hollywood a test case for distributing movies outside the multiplex cinemas.
For decades, fear and economics have combined to keep studios from collapsing a system that has required movies to first appear in a cinema, then on DVD or downloads before reaching HBO, basic cable and Netflix.
Theater owners fear audiences will stay home rather than drive to a cineplex and pay $20 for popcorn if alternatives exist. Those powerful interests have fought to maintain a rigid release schedule, successfully pushing back attempts by studios to make movies simultaneously available on video-on-demand services or even reduce the amount of time between when a film leaves theaters and when it's available elsewhere. Traditional studio contracts essentially tie every aspect of a film's post-theatrical life to its U.S. box office sales. That means the number of DVDs that Walmart carries, to how much HBO or Netflix pays, to how much a studio gets from a basic cable network like USA Network or TBS, is all based on a movie's theatrical run.
That's why when theater owners squawk, even the biggest studios listen.
With The Interview, a comedy about an assassination attempt on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, that whole ecosystem was shredded the moment big cinema companies refused to show the movie out of fear of violence by a hacker group that is waging war on Sony and its executives.
After initially pulling the movie, Sony is now seeking to at least recoup some of its $80 million in costs on The Interview by releasing the film in about 300 independent theaters nationwide tomorrow while also giving online VOD services a day's head start.
A studio of Sony's size hasn't tried this before. (Smaller studios have been unsuccessful in past efforts.)
So will audiences show up at theaters if they can rent the movie at home for $6 or download it for $15? We'll find out tomorrow.
I need to say that a comedy is best viewed in a theater full of people, so if you can, I'd watch it like that. Or call some friends over.— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) December 24, 2014
How will Walmart, Target and Amazon respond? It's one thing for those retailers, the biggest sellers of Blu-Rays and DVDs in the U.S., to carry the movie. The swing factor will be the extent those retailers invest in promoting it in newspaper circulars and online.
Also, by giving the movie a digital release from the outset, what happens to piracy?
Some in the tech industry argue providing wide digital distribution will inoculate films from rampant file-sharing on torrent sites. By providing a legal alternative, they say people will choose to pay for a movie instead of illegally downloading or streaming it.
Meanwhile, many in Hollywood fear early digital distribution will only make piracy easier and cut into future sales.
In the end, the answer might be more complicated.
"The effect will be twofold," Torrentfreak.com's founder and editor-in-chief, who goes by Ernesto, said in an email, responding to a question from HDT.
"Having a legal streaming option that's widely available will decrease the incentive to pirate the film," Ernesto wrote. "However, the film is not available in a pirated version yet. The streaming copy will probably be pirated soon, so in a way it will then also be the source of many unauthorized downloads."
The Interview will be closely watched by studios for all the above reasons. Will it change how Hollywood chooses to distribute movies? Probably not in 2015, but the the answers could have an impact on how a studio responds the next time one of its movies is widely leaked online, like Expendables 3, ahead of its theatrical run.
Tags: APPS AND SOFTWARE, BUSINESS, COMPUTER HACKING, DEV & DESIGN, FILM, HOLLYWOOD, MEDIA, MOBILE, SONY, THE INTERVIEW, U.S., Video, VOD, YOUTUBE