LOS ANGELES - Amid a swell of controversy, backlash, confusion, and threats, Sony Pictures broadly released The Interview online Wednesday - an unprecedented counterstroke against the hackers who spoiled the Christmas opening of the comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"It has always been Sony's intention to have a national platform on which to release this film," Sony Pictures chairman and CEO Michael Lynton said in a statement. "We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day, and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release."
The Interview became available on a variety of digital platforms Wednesday afternoon, including Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft's Xbox Video, and a separate Sony website, a day after Sony and independent theaters agreed to release it in over 300 venues on Christmas. The wide digital release is the culmination of a set of deals that have been in the works since the major theater chains last week dropped the movie that was to have opened on up to 3,000 screens.
Seth Rogen, who stars in the film he codirected with Evan Goldberg, cheered the decision.
"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," he tweeted.
A Sony executive close to the matter said that there is concern over whether the company will recoup the $40 million cost of the film and the millions more spent on marketing, but that affordability and wide access were their main priorities. The executive also said more providers could sign on in the coming days and weeks and the option is still there for more theaters to show the film down the line. The executive said that it remained an option for the major theater chains to show the film, and that Sony was working to repair the symbiotic relationship that has eroded in recent days.
Decisions by Google and Microsoft to show the movie could open their sites to hacking. Microsoft reported technical problems with its Xbox sign-in system Wednesday, though it wasn't known whether it was the result of hacking. Microsoft declined to comment.
Sony's initial decision not to release the film was widely criticized, with President Obama one of the harshest critics.
U.S. officials have blamed North Korea for the hacking, and White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama welcomed the latest development.
"As the president made clear on Friday, we do not live in a country where a foreign dictator can start imposing censorship here in the United States. With today's announcements, people can now make their own choices about the film, and that's how it should be," Schultz said.
Kim Song, a North Korean diplomat to the United Nations, condemned the release, calling the movie an "unpardonable mockery of our sovereignty and dignity of our supreme leader." But Kim said North Korea will likely limit its response to condemnation, with no "physical reaction."
The move to make the film available for rental and purchase before its theatrical release had never before been done with a mainstream film. Studios have released smaller indie and foreign movies simultaneously in theaters and on digital platforms, but analysts said the situation with The Interview left Sony little choice.
"Sony is in a delicate situation here since they normally never go this route with a major film, but theater chains also know this is a unique back-against-the-wall situation," added Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com.
While Pandya said that interest would likely wane in January, for now, the curiosity and enthusiasm were still palpable.
Penn Ketchum is the managing partner of Lancaster County-based Penn Cinema Management. The company owns two cineplex complexes with IMAX, one of which is the Penn Cinema Riverfront in Wilmington, which on Christmas Day will be showing The Interview.
Ketchum said he got the call from Sony on Tuesday. "It came completely out of left field," he said. I dropped everything I was doing, including my last-minute Christmas shopping. I was at the mall when he called.
"We gave it an entire day of serious consideration," Ketchum said. After talking to the FBI and Wilmington police, "in the end we felt 100 percent confident that we could keep our customers safe and secure. . . . The general impression I got is that there is a greater concern for a cyberattack than an actual physical attack."