The Interview, which had been due to be released on Christmas Day, stars Seth Rogen and James Franco in a comedy about the assassination of the North Korean dictator.
Studio Sony Pictures decided to cancel the planned release. In a statement, the company said it was acting “in light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film”.
The studio, which has been shaken by hacker leaks over the past several weeks, said it respected and shared in the exhibitors’ concerns.
The statement said: “We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees and the American public.
“We stand by our film-makers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”
It follows a decision earlier to scrap the film’s New York premiere, after hacking group Guardians of Peace warned members of the public not to watch the film.
The seriousness of the threat is unclear. The US department of homeland security said there was “no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theatres,” but noted it was still analysing messages from the group.
The FBI is investigating the identity of the hackers, but suspicion has centred on North Korea, which previously issued warnings over The Interview.
Sony did not say what its plans for The Interview now are, or whether the film’s release could potentially happen at a later date, although an online-only viewing of the release has been mooted by those still keen to see it.
US investigators have said North Korea was behind the cyber attacks on Sony Pictures.
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The hackers have leaked a string of embarrassing e-mails which have rocked the film studio and the wider industry, revealing the thoughts of its top executives on stars including Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The attack was possibly the costliest yet for a US company, said Avivah Litan, a cyber security analyst at research firm Gartner. “This attack went to the heart and core of Sony’s business – and succeeded,” she said.
“We haven’t seen any attack like this in the annals of US [security] breach history.”
Efraim Levy, a financial analyst who covers parent company Sony Corporation for research firm S&P Capital IQ, said: “Artistic freedom is at risk. Are we not going to put out movies that offend some constituencies?”
US ambassador to the UK Matthew Barzun said the attack and threats had raised questions of cyber security and freedom of expression.
“Let’s not get distracted by the e-mails that have been reported,” he told the BBC yesterday.
“That’s not the point. This is a major attack on business, and you think about the huge numbers of people employed in the UK, employed in the United States back home, in the creative industries – this is a major part of both our economies, and we’ve seen attacks.
“I hope it’s a wake-up call for all of us to do the right things in terms of protecting our property and protecting our intellectual property and the new nature of the cyber threat.”
Mr Barzun stopped short of commenting directly on Sony Pictures’ decision to shelve The Interview, but added: “In all acts of terrorism and cyber crime, let’s not give these thugs and these bad guys what they want, which is for us to get so scared and so terrified that we stop business as usual.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg criticised Sony’s decision to pull the film in response to the “online thugs”.
“It’s just extraordinary that in a free society we are allowing these online thugs from this police state to intimidate people,” he said on his LBC Radio phone-in.
The Liberal Democrat leader added: “We cannot allow them to basically intimidate cinema chains and stop audiences enjoying what is, by the sounds of it, a Christmas comedy film.”
He said that Sony had “quite a heavy responsibility” and there was a “big issue of principle at stake”.
Mr Clegg said: “We can’t have police states, basically through hacking and online intimidation, stopping free societies like ours having films shown at the cinemas that we want to see.”
Asked what David Cameron thought about Sony’s decision, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I have not spoken to him about it directly, but I do know that he always puts a very high importance on the principle of freedom of speech.
“Is there a very important principle around freedom of speech that we should never be shy about defending? That is absolutely a view the Prime Minister has.”
Scale of hack on Sony ‘could become the norm’
The unprecedented scale of the hack on Sony Pictures could become normal in the future, web security experts have warned.
When hackers calling themselves the Guardians of Peace, who are believed to have links to North Korea, broke into Sony’s internal systems last month and stole huge amounts of data, it was reported it was in retaliation for the forthcoming release of a film about a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Now the film in question, The Interview, has seen its release cancelled amid threats of terrorist attacks on cinemas that choose to screen it.
It follows the mass leak of personal details of more than 40,000 employees, full versions of movies yet to be released and e-mail exchanges criticising Angelina Jolie, which have left Sony deeply embarrassed.
Online security experts have suggested the success the hackers have had with this attack in terms of data snatched and coverage received could see similar breaches occur more frequently in the future.
Roy Duckles, director at web security expert Lieberman Software, said: “There are several key concerns about this particular attack – it has been a sustained attack and Sony seem to have daily issues that they seem unable to contain or re-mediate.
“It has spilled over to affect Sony’s customers, as in the cinema operators and their patrons.
“This attack is more cyber-terrorism than just a malicious hack, and the recent threats made to cinema-goers have escalated this to a presidential discussion level in the US.
“If this is an orchestrated attack from a rogue state, then it really brings into question the effectiveness of the current design of IT security policies.”
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