'The Interview' Could Hack The Theater Business

Many industry observers are speculating that the holiday-weekend digital distribution of Sony’s controversial movie The Interview will build momentum toward the release of big-ticket movies on digital video-on-demand platforms at the same time as the film’s theatrical release.

Sony on Dec. 28 reported that the movie drew 2 million downloads and $15 million from digital sales on YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Sony’s SeeTheInterview.com standalone site since its Dec. 24 digital release. Sony said The Interview has already generated more revenue than any other studio digital release, but that statement requires an asterisk.

First, the movie was distributed under unprecedented circumstances. The Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy, which portrays the assassination of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un by two TV personalities — and North Korea’s alleged digital hacking of Sony’s servers that superseded the release — created a phenomenon that is unlikely to be replicated again. The news coverage surrounding the film combined with a curiosity factor among consumers afforded The Interview with awareness and publicity that no other film is likely to receive.

Second, the film was only released in 331 independent movie theaters after hackers threatened those exhibitors distributing the film. It’s unclear that the studio’s digital performance would have been as robust had the movie been fully distributed theatrically, as intended.

Still, a $15 million take from digital distributors under any circumstance is nothing to sneeze at, especially since it didn’t include traditional cable video-on-demand revenue. In Demand and other VOD distributors did not strike a deal to pick up the film until Dec. 31.

Many independent film distributors are already offering movie titles on digital VOD at the same time or before a film’s theatrical release. In August, Netflix will stream the much-anticipated sequel to 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, simultaneously with its release in IMAX theaters.

While The Interview may or may not turn out to be the panacea that the digital VOD industry is expecting, it’s clear the movie’s digital performance has opened some eyes in the film industry. Time will tell if The Interview will sure the major film distributors to experiment with day-and-date digital/theatrical releases of big-budget movies in the near future.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.