THE controversial comedy The Interview had a Christmas Day opening in some US cinemas and online, after a cyber-attack and threats to filmgoers over its release.
Sony Pictures had originally pulled the film, about a fictional plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
But it reconsidered after critics, including the US president, said freedom of expression was at risk.
Some cinemas organised midnight showings yesterday (Thur) for Americans determined to see The Interview on the big screen.
Several hundred independent cinemas across the US came forward offering to show the title after larger cinemas decided not to screen it following threats.
Lee Peterson, manager of Cinema Village in New York, said it was a matter of principle to show the film.
“Obviously we would like to make money from the movie, as we would with any movie, but it’s important to take a stand about freedom, freedom of speech, freedom to see movies.”
The film is also being offered through a dedicated website and via Google services YouTube and Play, and Microsoft’s Xbox Video platform, but only in the US.
US officials have blamed North Korea for the hacking, and White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Barack Obama welcomed the latest development. The president, who was golfing yesterday was asked whether he plans to watch the film – he paused from his golf game and smiled.
“I’m glad it’s being released,” he said on the 18th hole.
Mr Obama was golfing with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at a military base in Hawaii, where the president and his family are on holiday.
The Interview features James Franco and Seth Rogen as two journalists granted an audience with Mr Kim. The CIA then enlists the pair to assassinate him.
Among the early viewers was 11-year-old Marco Squitieri of Washington, DC.
He had wanted to watch The Interview since seeing a preview earlier this year and had followed the news about Sony pulling the movie then permitting its release.
His family purchased the film from Xbox for $14.99 dollar. “It’s pretty funny,” Marco said, laughing as he praised the chemistry of Rogen and Franco and adding that he could understand why the North Korean government would not like it. “They make fun of North Korea a lot.”
Amy Hurley, an executive assistant who lives in Detroit, paid $5.99 to rent the movie on YouTube Movies and was disappointed.
A fan of Rogen and Franco, she found Franco’s character “way over the top” and thought the jokes “were old and kept going on and on”.
The move to make the film available for rental and purchase before its theatrical release had never before been done with a mainstream film.
Studios have released smaller indie and foreign movies simultaneously in cinemas and on digital platforms, but analysts said the situation with The Interview left Sony little choice.
“This isn’t being done because Sony wants to do it regularly, but rather out of necessity prompted by the exhibitor boycott,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.
Sony Pictures initially pulled the film after suffering an unprecedented hacking attack at the hands of a group calling itself the Guardians of Peace.
Last week, the FBI said its analysis pointed the finger at North Korea. However, many cybersecurity experts have come forward to dispute this assertion.
North Korea denied being behind the attack but described it as a “righteous deed”.
The hackers threatened to carry out a terrorist attack on cinemas showing the film on its scheduled release date of Christmas Day. After many cinemas pulled out, Sony cancelled the release.
That move was described by President Obama as a mistake.
Sony Chairman Michael Lynton said digital distribution had now been chosen to reverse some of that damage.
“It was essential for our studio to release this movie, especially given the assault upon our business and our employees by those who wanted to stop free speech.
“We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day, and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release.”