Sony Pictures Entertainment on Wednesday dropped plans for its release of “The Interview,” a movie that depicts the assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, after receiving a terror threat against theaters.
Before that, the four largest theater chains in the United States said they would not show the movie, which was to open on Christmas and has been at the center of a devastating hacking attack on Sony over the past several weeks.
Also Wednesday, U.S. intelligence officials concluded that the North Korean government was centrally involved with the attacks on Sony’s computers. That determination and the cancellation of the film were new twists in a series of developments that has found a major studio fighting for its art, and perhaps life, against forces driven by a foreign government.
The actions drew sharp criticism from many in the entertainment community who said Sony and the theaters had made it a dark day for freedom of expression. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, for example, called the cancellation “an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.”
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Shortly before Sony stepped back, AMC Theatres joined Regal Entertainment, Cinemark and Carmike Cinemas in dropping the film. Together, those exhibitors control more than 19,200 screens across the country. Smaller chains in the U.S. and Canada’s Cineplex Entertainment also canceled bookings.
AMC, based in Leawood, cited a need for customers to “plan their holiday moviegoing with certainty and confidence.” An advance screening for Kansas City area movie reviewers, set for Wednesday evening, also was canceled.
A Sony spokesman said the studio “has no further release plans” for the $44 million comedy. The cancellation was a sharp defeat for the studio, which for months had stood behind the film and its plot as being within its creative rights. North Korean officials excoriated it as “an act of war,” and a group of hackers raided the studio’s computers and published mounds of private corporate data online in declared retribution for the movie.
“The Interview” was co-directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. A spokesman for them said they had no comment. But others in the industry didn’t hold back.
Movie reviewer Richard Roeper, on Twitter, said, “So every time anyone ever makes a threat to, say, a chain of stores, or all the airports in the country, we should shut ’em down?”
And actor Rob Lowe tweeted that he had seen Rogen at an airport, and “Both of us have never seen or heard of anything like this. Hollywood has done Neville Chamberlain proud today.”
On Tuesday, a threat of terrorism against theaters that show “The Interview” was made in rambling emails sent to various news outlets. The threat read in part, “Remember the 11th of September 2001.” The emails aimed the threat at “the very times and places” at which “The Interview” was to play in its early showings.
Before pulling the plug, Sony spent a day steadfastly maintaining its plans for the release and premiere. But since the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings in 2012, Cinemark had fought lawsuits with a defense that said the incident was not foreseeable — a stance that would have been nearly impossible with “The Interview.”
The film’s collapse stirred considerable animosity among Hollywood companies and players. Theater owners were angry that they had been boxed into leading the pullback. Executives at competing studios privately complained that Sony should have acted sooner or avoided making the film altogether. To depict the killing of a sitting world leader, comically or otherwise, is virtually without precedent in major studio movies, film historians say.
And some Sony employees and producers, many of whom have had personal information published for the world to see, bitterly complained that they had been jeopardized to protect the creative prerogatives of Rogen and Goldberg. With “The Interview” and other films in which he co-directed or starred, including “This is the End” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” Rogen has pursued a career that makes a virtue of offensiveness.
The multiplex operators made their decision in the face of pressure from malls, which worried that a terror threat could affect the end of the holiday shopping season. Similarly, studios that compete with Sony were scrambling behind the scenes to protect releases that include the latest “Hobbit” extravaganza and the musical “Into the Woods.”
As the attack progressed, both the studios and their Washington-based trade association, the Motion Picture Association of America, remained largely defensive, and ultimately found no way to save the film or to stem the flow of Sony’s private data. The data has been released online in waves since the hackers first breached the studio’s system Nov. 24.
The National Association of Theatre Owners, which represents exhibitors, mobilized its own response to the crisis immediately as the threat of violence surfaced Tuesday. The association convened its board for briefings by both Sony and by officials with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, according to a person briefed on the sessions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.
That person said the officials spoke in terms far less assuring than those used publicly by Homeland Security, which had played down the threat. Instead, theater owners were told that government agencies could not gauge the ability of the hackers to go from digital to physical threat, leaving each exhibition company to decide individually how to proceed.
Similarly, this person said, Sony “punted,” asking theater owners to take responsibility for solving a problem that, in their view, belonged to the studio.
Sony’s decision drew sighs of relief from some of its own employees, particularly the studio’s television division. But some experts in security had harsh words.
“The notion that Sony and the theaters are going to react by caving on this film — a comedy — is ridiculous,” said Frances Fragos Townsend, who was President George W. Bush’s counterterrorism adviser.
“This is a horrible precedent,” Townsend added.
The Star’s Kathy Lu and Diane Stafford contributed.