Could Sony Have Released 'The Interview' If It Wanted?

The Interview Still 4 - H 2014
Ed Araquel

The Interview Still 4 - H 2014

Sony's Michael Lynton says he hasn't found a digital distributor willing to take on the movie

Although Sony Pictures continues to point the finger at theater owners for its decision to cancel The Interview’s Dec. 25 release, there were alternative distribution strategies, like the type of platform release the studio used for 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, that the studio could have used, sources familiar with the situation tell The Hollywood Reporter

While the country’s largest theater circuits — Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark and Carmike — separately all decided by Dec. 17 not to show the film, following the escalating threats of violence issued by the hackers, there were other theaters, like the Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse chain, that wanted to screen the movie, according to exhibition sources. While it could not be determined how many movie theaters might have stepped forward, one idea that was proposed during the course of the discussions was a platform release, with the movie rolling out slowly in a limited number of theaters.

"We have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie," Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton said Friday on CNN. But he argued the planned Dec. 25 theatrical release was no longer an option after the major chains dropped out. And while he said the studio is exploring options for distributing the movie digitally, he added, "There has not been one major VOD — video on demand distributor — one major e-commerce site that has stepped forward and said they are willing to distribute this movie for us. Again, we don’t have that direct interface with the American public so we need to go through an intermediary to do that."

BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer file-sharing company, has proposed that Sony release the film through a bundle, which lets artists charge for content that is downloaded. Sony itself owns Crackle, the ad-supported streaming service it acquired in 2006. It's available on set-top boxes like Apple TV, has a large library of licensed movies in addition to original programming like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and has 25 million viewers across 22 countries. But since it doesn't offer a paid service, Sony wouldn't be able to use it to present The Interview as a pay-per-view event. Another option would be for Sony to turn to the Sony Playstation, which does sell and rent movies through its digital store.

In terms of the movie's theatrical release, Sony faced a similar, though far from identical, situation in 2012 as it prepared to launch Kathryn Bigelow’s politically-charged Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The movie was originally scheduled to open before that year’s November presidential election, but when it appeared that it might be drawn into the political crosshairs, Sony chose to schedule a wide release for Dec. 19, after the election.

Read more Sony Fires Back at Obama: "We Had No Choice" But to Cancel 'The Interview' Release

At the time, there were some concerns that the film, which depicts the CIA’s use of torture, could inflame tensions around the world. And in early November, the studio changed its strategy, opting to open the film in just five theaters on Dec. 19, delaying its wide release until three weeks later on Jan. 11, a decision that also was driven by awards-season positioning.

While the $44 million The Interview is an R-rated comedy, a genre that typically opens in wide release, there were those that argued that the studio should go with a slow rollout, making a principled stand against the threats while also addressing any security concerns surrounding the movie.

In its latest statement — in response to President Obama’s contention that the studio “made a mistake” in canceling the movie’s release — Sony said, “The decision not to move forward with the Dec. 25 theatrical release of The Interview was made as a result of the majority of the nation’s theater owners choosing not to screen the film. This was their decision."

The fact that Sony is now continuing to lay much of the blame for the movie's cancellation at the feet of the exhibitors has rankled a number of them, although the National Association of Theater Owners, the trade association that reps movie theaters owners, has not responded to Sony’s latest statement.

The current tensions between Sony and the theater chains could have repercussions down the road when it comes time for the studio to negotiate rental terms and release dates for its upcoming films. Distributors usually work hard to foster goodwill with exhibitors. But if any exhibitors harbor lingering resentment about how Sony is now characterizing their actions, that could lead to tougher negotiations in the future. Although sympathetic to the pressure the studio has been under, one source commented about the current state of affairs between Sony and some exhibitors, saying, “They have not managed the relationships well, and they’ve got a lot of bridges to mend.”

-- Natalie Jarvey contributed to this report