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'The Interview,' Now Sony's Top Online Film Ever, Earns Nearly $18M

The Interview is now Sony's top online movie. It earned $15 million through rentals and sales, the studio said. It pulled in almost another $3 million from theater screenings. Jim Ruymen/UPI/Landov hide caption

toggle caption Jim Ruymen/UPI/Landov

The Interview is now Sony's top online movie. It earned $15 million through rentals and sales, the studio said. It pulled in almost another $3 million from theater screenings.

Jim Ruymen/UPI/Landov

The Interview, the Sony Pictures' movie that was pulled from theaters after threats from a group of hackers, has earned the studio $15 million in online rentals and purchases in the four days since it was made available last week. It also brought in nearly $3 million from theater screenings.

Together, that's only slightly less than the $20 million the studio had estimated The Interview to generate in its opening weekend in theaters across the nation.

The film, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, is a comedy that centers on a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Sony's emails were hacked in the period leading up to the movie's planned Christmas Day release, and the group that claimed responsibility for the hack, the Guardians of Peace, also threatened violence against moviegoers if the film made it to theaters. That prompted the nation's largest theater chains to say they wouldn't screen The Interview. Sony, too, said it wouldn't release the movie.

That seemed to be the end of the road for the film, which reportedly cost $44 million to make, until last week when it was announced that about 300 independent movie theaters would show The Interview. Sony also announced it would make the movie available for rent online for $4.95 on services such as YouTube Movies and Microsoft's Xbox video console, as well as a dedicated website. It also went on sale for $14.99.

Variety reported today that the movie was rented or bought more than 2 million times between Wednesday and Saturday. That figure is likely to rise as Apple's iTunes service made the movie available over the weekend. The Interview also earned nearly $3 million through its screenings at 331 theaters. Bloomberg noted that the movie is Sony's top online film ever. The news service adds:

"The unconventional rollout of The Interview is the first big test for a simultaneous theatrical and online release. Typically, such debuts have been reserved for smaller films, such as independent movies that may not have enough widespread appeal to warrant a big theatrical marketing budget, according to Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Rentrak."

But Dergarabedian also told NPR that as good as those figures are for The Interview, that movie — with a back story that reads like a screenplay itself — is an outlier.

"I think this is a one-off for a really one-off movie," Dergarabedian told NPR. "To think that in the future a movie with this level of budget can be released in this way and have this kind of result, that's like expecting lightning to strike twice in the same place."

Gene Del Vecchio, author of the book Creating Blockbusters and a marketing professor at the University of Southern California, says big theater chains might be kicking themselves right now, after seeing those returns for The Interview, since they mostly shied away from releasing the film on their screens.

"If I were them, I'd be feeling that I should have gone along, that I should have opened this film to 2,000, 3,000 theaters across the country," says Del Vecchio. "Because if you take those numbers from 300 or so smaller theaters and you multiply it times 10, they could have done sizable business, in fact probably much more business than had this controversy never been created."

But, Del Vecchio says even though the big chains may have missed out on what might be the most talked about movie of 2014 — they're going move on pretty quickly.

"Long term, these issues are going to go away. Next week, it's a different film, a different situation," says Del Vecchio. "And they're going be opening things with 2- and 3,000 theaters across the country."

Del Vecchio does say, as the industry continues to grapple with online versus theatrical releases, it's important to remember that the same movie can offer different experiences in different venues, especially a comedy like The Interview.

"There's something about sitting in a theater, and not having two people on a couch laughing, but having 500 people laugh. You get that rush of the crowd experience."

As far as the hack that started the entire controversy, The FBI initially accused North Korea of being behind the hack, but the communist country, while calling the hack "righteous," denied any role. Some experts say they doubt North Korea has the capability to carry out such an attack.

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