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Back in December Sony Pictures cancelled all showings of their spy-comedy The Interview due to violent threats from hackers who took offense to the plot and content (and in particular the depiction of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un). In the film, two journalists score an interview with the reclusive leader but before they leave, they get a visit from two CIA operatives who convince them to assassinate the controversial head of state.
Sony initially planned to screen the film in select theaters across the country, but too many chains opted not to show the film due to safety concerns, prompting producers to cancel all showings altogether. Although Sony and its partners had the safety of the public in mind, many public figures disagreed with the move, claiming they were bowing to terrorism.
Following the high-profile Sony hack and the release of sensitive company information (including regarding up-coming films), the government resolved to investigate the hack.
The release of The Interview online seemed to be a Hail Mary. The film cost $44 million to produce and, before the violent threats from North Korean hackers, Sony expected to recover half of that in the opening weekend. When all major theaters cancelled screenings, the studio pulled the film as they tried to figure out a better plan for launch.
The reality was that Sony could not have anticipated such a a response and the company was facing millions in loses. Fortunately for them, the media aired the story extensively, creating a massive amount of hype and anticipation for the film- which allowed Sony to seriously consider a full online release.
The Interview was released directly to YouTube, Xbox and Google Play, but sales still fell short and initial revenue predictions were not met. But Sony still called it a success as the film became the most successful digital release of all time.
With $15 million in digital sales and just over $3 million in box office sales in the first week, producers still have some time to break even.
Will More Films Be Released Online?
The Interview presented a unique situation (which would be difficult to recreate) where public hype drove up digital sales significantly. There was no way to predict how the film would fair after release, and so its online success is in fact an irregularity. But even after receiving enormous publicity on the media, the film still failed to make a profit on digital sales and Sony still has to supplement sales with revenue raised from theater screenings.
Much of the circumstances surrounding the release of the film are coincidental and despite the hailed success of its online release, there haven’t been any reports of studios allocating film budgets to online releases. While the uniqueness and ease of digital release might resonate with small or independent film producers, Hollywood producers might have reservations about it because big budget films would never rake in profits as they do in theaters.
Sadly, we’re still a long way from that conversation being taken seriously in Hollywood.