The Interview‘s lasting impact won’t stem from being a mediocre film turned into an accidental symbol of freedom, or because it marks James Franco’s descent into the bowels of bad acting (though both are true). More likely, it will be remembered as the flick that influenced the way Hollywood distributes new films.
Sony, after suffering cyberterrorist attacks until it nixed the movie, bowed to public opinion (as well as that of the POTUS) by releasing the film after all. On Christmas Eve, moviegoers had several options for watching Franco and Seth Rogen’s antics at select theaters or online.
Although smaller studios and distributors dabble with simultaneous theatrical and video-on-demand (VOD) debuts, also known as “day and date releases,” most major studios shy away from them. But now that a big player like Sony gave The Interview a combo premiere, the industry’s on the edge of its seat, waiting to see how it pans out.
In other words, if you enjoy streaming brand-new movies on opening day, cross your fingers that this lame movie becomes a blockbuster hit.
Business As Usual (Or Unusual)
It’s enough to make your inner film geek weep.
On its own merits, Franco and Seth Rogen’s The Interview—which features an assassination plot to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un—is not must-see entertainment, not by anyone’s yardstick. Even as a symbol of anti-terrorist sentiment, its fleeting value probably won’t even last as long as the wilting Christmas trees in people’s living rooms.
But streaming fans have to root for the online success of this film. Because, as a high-profile test case, it could make the film industry at large take streaming premieres much more seriously. The comedy debuted online via YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video, Crackle and Sony’s website. If their fees—roughly $6 (for rentals) to $15 (for purchases)—can add up to enough profitability, big studios everywhere may suddenly warm to day and date releases.
What held it back so far was not technology, but business. Theater owners see online distribution as direct threats, and distributors didn’t want to damage the profitable relationships that have been Hollywood’s lifeblood.
This time, few theaters carried the film. Initial release plans included 2,000 domestic screens, but ultimately only 331 small cinemas, some only seating 170 people, played the movie. Those seats pulled in a grand total of $1 million so far, which is peanuts for a film that cost $40 million to make and even less to an industry used to multi-million, even billion-dollar box office numbers.
Clearly the theatrical release won’t help The Interview’s grosses. So everything hinges on this lame-brained flick’s online premieres.
Stealing The Future Of “Day And Date Release”
A few facts hurt can hurt streaming’s case. Apple did not carry the movie in its iTunes store, effectively cutting out owners of its Apple TV, one of the most popular streaming TV devices on the market.
The movie has also become a favorite for online piracy, with estimates approaching 1 million illegal downloads. Certainly some people may be too cheap to blow $6 on a rental, but others—like foreign audiences—couldn’t access the film through conventional means. The movie debuted in the U.S. alone, which sent untold numbers flocking to BitTorrent to illegally nab it. As it turns out, Sony itself may have accidentally helped.
BitTorrent offered to host the movie legally, but Sony didn’t take up its offer. Instead, it made The Interview available through other sites as well as its own SeeTheInterview.com. But the streaming technology that powers Sony’s site had a rather huge bug—viewers quickly discovered they could easily download the whole film instead of merely playing it.
Sony has not yet released numbers relating to the success or failure of its online push. Whatever the final tally comes out to, it obviously won’t be as much as what it could have earned. But hopefully, it will still be enough to tempt Hollywood.
Lead photo of The Interview streamed via Google Play by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite; all other images courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment