Sony Handling Of ‘The Interview’ Release Puts Big Exhibitors On Warpath; VOD Next Shoe To Drop?

By David Robb, Mike Fleming Jr

EXCLUSIVE: Sony’s surprise decision to double back and release The Interview in limited fashion on Christmas Day has exhibitors in a rage, and it sure looks like it is going to take them a long time to get over it. After Sony canceled the December 25 bow, SonyPictureslogopulled its advertising and began scrapping billboards, exhibitors filled the screens with other pictures. Led by Sony chief Michael Lynton, the studio — and President Obama — are waving the pompoms and making the release of this movie, on probably one-tenth of the original screen count, sound like a victory against terrorism. It’s a peculiar stance. Most feel that Sony’s handling of this crisis has been schizophrenic all the way through, and while some might patronize The Interview as their testament they will stand up to terrorism, censorship and evil, what is going to happen when they realize it’s a silly comedy on the order of Hot Shots! and its sequel, which featured Saddam Hussein as a character who was killed? The Interview replaces Hussein with Kim Jong-un. That appears to be exactly what is in store here, as opposed to a hot-button prestige message movie like Zero Dark Thirty or Argo.

The InterviewSony’s eleventh-hour decision to change course, yet again, and release in limited fashion — we’re hearing there might be 100 theaters — has left heads of the the major chains completely frustrated. Many theaters want no part of this, and we hear that the little guys who do are miffed that Sony came back to them with aggressive split terms, with exhibitors on their own if they want to add security. Sony was already on the last nerve of these theater execs, who were infuriated that the studio didn’t have the courage to simply cancel the picture when it received bomb threats by the North Korea-backed hackers who’d brought Sony Pictures to its knees by airing the dirty laundry emails of Sony Pictures execs through bottom-feeding media outlets. Sony positioned theater owners to take the collar for damaging free speech, because the theaters were the ones left liable for damage and safety of its patrons and even though Homeland Security discounted the threat, there was no getting around the fact, even if some crackpot hurt someone, everybody had been forewarned.

We’ve heard from exhibitors that days ago, Sony was back c-hannel imploring them to cancel the film so that the studio wouldn’t have to be seen caving to terrorists. Now, everybody expects this small theater rollout to accompany a VOD rollout, possibly the same day. We are awaiting news on that front. This would destroy the film’s theatrical viability and would further infuriate NATO and major theater owners, who don’t participate in that part of the program. That, and the simple ridiculousness of expecting to change Christmas plans so close to the date, are creating the kind of anger no one should feel in the middle of the holiday season.

Here’s an example of one unhappy camper, the Landmark Theatres chain: “Landmark Theatres has no plans to play The Interview,” the chain relayed in a statement. “Our theaters have been fully booked for months as there is an enormous amount of film already in the marketplace in addition to six new films opening on Christmas Day. It would never occur to us not to honor our existing commitments to our distribution partners during one of the busiest times in the year.”

Even though most are not yet speaking on the record, they are forming a line, on background.

“This is another misstep for Sony,” an exhibition source told Deadline. “Releasing it simultaneously on VOD is against the clear desire of the theater owners. This is going to be another thing that Sony is going to have to repair with exhibition, especially after Sony threw theater owners under the bus last week when they blamed the theaters for pulling the wide release. Theater owners had asked for a delay so that they could address the security issues, and Sony pulled the release. And when President Obama criticized Sony, their response was to blame theater owners.”

The source acknowledged that the ever-unfolding drama surrounding the film has been unprecedented and that there is “no playbook” for a situation like this, but he suggested that Sony’s handling of the matter is “the anti-playbook.”

Security, he said, is still a big concern for the theater owners – if not from North Korea, then for some lone nut with a gun – and that “security is something Sony should address.”

Some are speaking up: Bill Barstow, whose Main Street Theatres had planned to make room for the film, now is leaning against showing it. “Security is a big deal,” he said. “How do we get security on Christmas Day on such short notice?”

Barstow said that adding a film to his screens on such late notice also creates a “logistical nightmare.” To show The Interview would mean having to take another film out of his lineup, and “on such late notice, that creates problems for other distributors.”

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