First it was a comedy film about a fictional assassination attempt on North Korea’s dictator. Then it became real-life political theater, after a computer-hacking scandal and terrorist threats temporarily halted the movie’s release.
But for all the intrigue, “The Interview” may simply turn out to be a Christmas hit for Hollywood, potentially one of the biggest for a comedy in many years. On Christmas Day, it sold out in initial showings across the country, including at the Palladio 16 Cinemas in Folsom.
“The Interview” stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as a television duo who manage to arrange an interview with Kim Jong Un, the eccentric and reclusive leader of North Korea. They are then recruited by the CIA to make the interview a pretext for an assassination attempt.
The movie’s planned release by Sony Pictures in major American theaters was canceled after hackers breached Sony’s computer network, releasing troves of sensitive information online. The hackers, calling themselves “Guardians of Peace,” threatened violence if the movie was released.
U.S. officials blamed the North Korean government for the attack. North Korea denied involvement, but praised the hackers and denounced the film.
Over the past week, Sony struggled to find an appropriate path forward for the film. At first, it told major theater companies they would not violate contracts if they chose not to show the film due to safety concerns. So the big theaters canceled the release.
Then many independent theaters offered to show the movie instead. Separately, President Barack Obama decried the decision to withhold the movie. Sony then struck deals with the independents to release the film, prompting a backlash from the large theater companies.
Before any theaters could show the film, Sony quietly released the movie on Christmas Eve for purchase via numerous online streaming venues.
“Clearly, it has little to do with whether the movie is any good or not at this point,” said Gary Meyer, former director of the Telluride Film Festival and co-founder of Landmark Theatres. “The bottom line is, people want to see what all the noise is about.”
Plenty of people echoed that after buying tickets to see “The Interview.” The only theater offering the movie in the Sacramento area was the Palladio in Folsom, which sold out its first three showings.
“We just saw it the opening day because of all the controversy around it,” said Judy Lee, a Korean American who saw it with her two siblings at the Palladio. “I know, going back to work, that people will be talking about it, so I’m glad I won’t be left out.”
Lee, who lives in New York City and returned home to El Dorado Hills to spend Christmas with her family, said she was not offended by the film’s content. But she said her parents, whose families are originally from North Korea, might not have appreciated some of the humor in the movie. They also watched the movie on Christmas Day, she said, but they used an online streaming service rather than going to the theater.
“It wasn’t really political. It was just comedy,” Lee said. “Based on some of the Korean humor in the film, I’m kind of glad I didn’t watch it with my mom and dad.”
There were no reports of violence at the Folsom theater or any others around the nation as the day unfolded. But many venues added extra security as a precaution, including the Palladio.
Dave Corkill, owner of Cinema West, the theater chain that includes the Palladio, said there were no signs of a threat to safety, and the extra security was brought in simply to reassure customers.
“We want to play the movie because our customers want to see it,” Corkill said via email. “We’re in the business of showing movies our customers want to see, even if the movie is controversial. I believe in free speech, and showing this movie reinforces my belief.”
Some customers said they made a point to see the movie for just that reason.
“I’m here to explicitly be entertained and tacitly protect free speech,” said Charles Richards of Diamond Springs, a U.S. Army veteran, as he waited in line with his wife and children to see the sold-out second show at the Palladio. “I believe we’re doing our part by buying these tickets. That’s why we’re here. We would not be here today were it not for what Sony went through to release this movie.”
Others said their only agenda was fun.
“I’m just out to have a good time on Christmas Day,” said Betty Flecklin of Placerville, who waited in line to see the movie with her daughters. “I’m not worried about all the hype around it or anything else. I think this whole experience makes people want to see it even more.”
Many viewers were pleased with the movie, if only because it seemed to meet their expectations for laughs. Jeff Becker of Folsom, who saw the movie with his brother Ian, said the entire audience laughed throughout the film and, at the end, reacted with a standing ovation.
“It was so hilarious,” Becker said. “I think it was the best comedy of the year, probably.”
Flecklin said it was her first time going out to a theater on Christmas Day to see a movie. But for others, it’s an annual ritual.
Caron Hughes started seeing a Christmas movie with her family some years ago after a colleague revealed her own holiday movie tradition.
At first, Hughes said, “I just thought that was weirdest thing ever. I’m Catholic and I just couldn’t get it. But it just kinda stuck.”
Many films are targeted for release on Christmas Day, and it has long been an important day for the industry.
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Rentrak, a firm that monitors the film industry, said the holiday is important because it is the last chance to rake in money before the close of the year. This year may be particularly important because December is tracking about 20 percent below last year in terms of ticket revenue, he said, and the year as a whole is down about 5 percent vs. 2013.
But there are many variables in how Christmas Day performs for the industry. A lot depends on the appeal of the films being released, and also on the day of the week on which Christmas falls.
“It ranks up there among the more important holidays in terms of movie-going,” said Dergarabedian. “It’s something good to do outside the home on Christmas Day. It can also be a bonding ritual for families. You can sit around all day at home, which is great. But a lot of people like the option of going out with the family to see a movie.”
With nationwide sellouts and all the hype around its release, “The Interview” stands a chance to become one of the top-grossing comedies released on Christmas Day.
The last comedy release to notch big numbers on Christmas Day was “Patch Adams,” starring Robin Williams, which was released in 1998. It collected just over $8 million on opening day, a relatively modest sum in the realm of major-studio releases, according to Rentrak. The record-setter among all genres is “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr., with $24.6 million on its Christmas Day release in 2009.
Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.