Box-Office Preview: 'The Interview' Changes Everything (Or Does It?)

Ed Araquel
'The Interview'

'Hobbit' and 'Into the Woods' are expected to dominate overall, while awards contenders 'Selma' and 'American Sniper' roll out in select markets

Now that Sony is back to releasing The Interview, at least in a limited number of theaters, an unpredictable element has been thrown into Christmas Day box-office expectations.

Sony announced Tuesday that the R-rated comedy — starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as two bumbling journalists asked by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — will be released in select theaters. The studio is also trying to put a day-and-date VOD release in place as well, although that has not yet been made official. The movie is expected to play in 200 or more theaters, a majority of which are independent.

The Interview was pulled last week after the group that claimed responsibility for hacking Sony Pictures threatened to launch 9/11-style attacks on any venue showing the movie. First, the major theater chains said they would not show the movie, and then Sony canceled the release, despite interest from indie theaters. However, things were quickly muddied on Dec. 19, when President Barack Obama said Sony made a mistake in scrapping the film's release (a White House spokesman was quick to commend Sony's current plan).

Read more Sony Announces Limited Release for 'The Interview'

On Dec. 22, a coalition representing roughly 250 independent theaters pleaded with Sony to let them show The Interview. Tuesday morning, Sony essentially agreed to that request, saying it will make the comedy available to any theater wishing to play it.

However, the bigger theater circuits aren't likely to oblige because of the possible VOD component. Generally speaking, most theater owners have a blanket policy against carrying a movie that's being made available simultaneously on digital platforms or DVD.

Insiders say the major exhibitors are furious with Sony's revised plan for The Interview because of both the VOD element and the way Sony has handled the whole situation. Some also worry that any renewed threat by the hackers could dampen holiday moviegoing. Domestic box-office revenue is down 5 percent from last year, and no one now expects that gap to close much over the course of the holidays.

In terms of the holiday box-office chart, it's unclear where The Interview will place considering its limited footprint. It could earn $2 million or $3 million.

The two biggest Christmas winners in terms of sheer earnings are expected to be Disney's musical Into the Woods and Warners' holdover The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

With Christmas Day falling on a Thursday this year, the four-day holiday weekend should see Hobbit placing No. 1 with more than $50 million.

Into the Woods is expected to earn $27 million to $30 million. Directed by Rob Marshall, the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical boasts a star-studded cast that includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp.

Angelina Jolie's drama Unbroken also rolls out Christmas Day and should make a strong showing with a four-day gross in the high teens, or even the $20 million range. The Universal film is based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling biography of World War II hero Louis Zamperini.

The two other films opening nationwide on Dec. 25 are The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg, and Tim Burton's Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. (Big Eyes won't be playing in as many theaters as the other Christmas Day releases).

The stretch between Christmas and New Years is considering one of the most lucrative corridors of the year in terms of moviegoing, with December titles enjoying strong multiples. That's why family films Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and Annie, both of which debuted last weekend, could do as much business over Christmas weekend as they did in their opening weekends (or $17.1 million and $15.9 million, respectively).

At the specialty box office, awards contenders Selma and American Sniper both roll out Christmas Day in select theaters and are expected to make a strong play.

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