The surprise salvage of The Interview’s release started with emails amid the chaos of Sony’s hacking crisis, sent between Alamo Drafthouse impresario Tim League, Tim Massett of Florida’s Sun-Ray Cinema, and George R.R. Martin. Yes, that George R.R. Martin, bestselling Game Of Thrones author and owner of the single-screen Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“They were looking for a little bit of insight into the Sony situation,” League told me Tuesday after word broke that Sony would release the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy after all – not through the major corporate-owned theater chains, but with the help of independent cinemas. “It seemed like an opportunity for Art House Convergence to get involved.”
Art House Convergence is the Sundance Institute offshoot founded in 2006 to support and promote independent and art house exhibition. After the major chains bowed out of screening The Interview and Sony in turn canceled the film’s Christmas Day wide release, the org drafted a petition with a core group of fellow AHC theater owners “to show Sony there were people willing to go on the record publicly in support of the release of The Interview,” said League.
“George R.R. Martin was probably the first one to say, ‘Yes, me, George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones – I will show this movie!'” he added.
In just one day the petition gathered hundreds of signatures from independent exhibitors. Talks with Sony followed on Monday as League and his collaborators provided intel on which of the signatory theaters were equipped with digital projection and could show it on specific dates. “They were clearly in a stage of regrouping and looking to get the film out there,” said League. Even as late as yesterday, talks were still indeterminate. To League’s delight, Sony made the call this morning and told bookers they could screen the film starting Thursday.
The idea of a limited engagement roll-out did come up when Sony was still hashing it out with the big chains, some of whom are none too pleased at the studio’s Tuesday flip-flop – just days after nationwide advertising materials began coming down in defeat. VOD and day-and-date options are also being explored although no official carriers have been announced.
“The big theaters had already said no, we’re stepping away. I think Sony needed to pause and regroup and do their own risk assessments,” League said. “Nonetheless when the big players are out of the picture it really is regional and art house theaters who are the ones that are still there.”
The major theater chains opted out over liability concerns stemming from cyberterrorists’ threats, including a 9/11 invocation that promised violent attacks on theaters and neighborhoods where The Interview played. Theaters like League’s Drafthouse Cinemas are also mindful of those threats and have beefed up security measures.
League will be showing the film at most of the Drafthouse’s 19 locations. And security will be tight. “We met with local law enforcement,” he said. “They came out for a security briefing with our managers and staff. They did a walk-through.”
The same measures were taken, he said, after the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. “There is some level of risk in supporting this film,” he said, “but there are hundreds of theaters supporting it, and the risk of backing down and not supporting it is even greater; it would have set a precedent that is even worse. This goes beyond The Interview. We’re supporting freedom of expression. That’s what this is all about.”
And while many theater owners are not at all happy that Sony is releasing the film on VOD at the same time the film will be shown in theaters, League said he “doesn’t have a problem with that because this is such a unique situation that Sony is in, so it makes sense.” He said that a poll was sent out yesterday to indie theater owners, “and nobody had a problem with it.”
“Art house theaters, by their DNA, are strong advocates of personal freedom and freedom of expression, and we will support films that are challenging and controversial,” he said. “Despite the fact that there is still potential danger out there there’s more danger in just walking away. It sets a horrible precedent a lot of us.”
It remains to be seen how independent cinemas involved in The Interview‘s December 25 release will benefit from supporting Sony when the big chains did not. Many theaters are still keeping their distance, 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. “I didn’t want to get into a hardball negotiation when there were 48 hours to prep for this,” said League.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Sony says they’ve got 200+ indie theaters booked to premiere The Interview on Thursday. That number is still growing as the studio continues to book screens. Martin’s Jean Cocteau Cinema Tweeted Tuesday that it landed the film, and the Game of Thrones author-exhibitor explained on his blog that the Cocteau would be opening on Christmas Day just to screen The Interview:
“Just got off the phone with Jon Bowman, the booker at the Jean Cocteau Cinema. Jon just got off the phone with Sony.
THE INTERVIEW will open at the Cocteau on Christmas Day. Four shows: 2pm, 4:30, 7pm, and 9:30.
We were otherwise going to be closed on Christmas. We’re opening just for this film, and will devote the whole day to it.
We have booked a full run, so THE INTERVIEW will continue to run for two weeks, in rotation with the other films that we had already committed too before this all broke.
We may schedule some midnight shows if there’s enough demand.
So come join us, and celebrate Christmas… and free speech… with Seth Rogen.”
Another celebrity exhibitor screening The Interview on Thursday is Michael Moore, who Tweeted that his Bijou theater in Traverse City, Michigan will play the film:
Steve Mason, who co-owns the Cinémas Palme d’Or in Coachella Valley, California with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Tweeted that their theater will also run The Interview:
The 200 and counting theaters screening The Interview this Thursday might take a cue from League, who has emerged as one of the most vocal figures in modern indie exhibition. He has famously banned Madonna from his theaters for texting in a movie, crusaded for 35mm film stock and exhibition, and through his Drafthouse Films distribution banner acquired and distributed challenging films like the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, about the Indonesian genocide.
Until Paramount Classics withdrew its permissions, Drafthouse’s Dallas location was set to screen Team America: World Police in protest of The Interview’s censored distribution last week.
Some recall the day back in 2012 when he dressed up as Kim Jong-Il for the tongue in cheek premiere of Red Dawn at his Fantastic Fest film festival, complete with North Korea-themed after party. The move sparked whispers that Kim Jon Il took notice and had Austin, Texas on his hit list. “I thought that was a funny rumor,” League said, waving off the possibility. “I would hope there are bigger fish to fry.”
League’s planning to go all out for The Interview in typical Drafthouse fashion by serving margaritas to moviegoers (Kim Jong Un’s favorite drink, according to the film). “Margaritas all day long. We’ve stocked up on our paper umbrellas.” He’s also unveiling a Seth Rogen movie etiquette PSA recorded when the Interview star and co-director came to Austin this month to screen the film, days before cyberterrorists spooked the major chains and Sony into pulling it.
“It has less to do with the cinema industry and more to do with being a citizen,” League explained of his public stances on all things concerning today’s indie exhibitor. “I do feel strongly, not just about etiquette and behavior in a movie theater. I want every single movie theater in the United States to be serious about making sure it’s awesome and fun to go to the cinema, and that takes a concerted effort on all fronts.”
Deadline’s David Robb contributed to this report.