The comedy duo of Rogen and Franco just keep making history. In an about-face this week, Sony Pictures Entertainment decided to release the much-debated comedy “The Interview,” despite a cyberattack against the studio and threats of 9/11-style violence against moviegoers. The Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg-directed film was made available on Google’s YouTube and other streaming services Wednesday before premiering in limited theatrical release on Thursday.
It was a win for free-speech advocates to be sure, but lost amid discussions of censorship and First Amendment values is the fact that a major Hollywood movie showed up online -- legally -- before it was seen in theaters. That unusual move could threaten to further upend the traditional distribution strategies on which Hollywood relies.
If it’s profitable, that is. “The Interview” is currently available as a $5.99 download, and so far Sony hasn’t released figures on how many people have actually viewed it. To make back the reported $80 million the studio spent on producing and marketing the North Korean-set comedy, the movie would have to be downloaded more than 13 million times.
If that’s the future of cinema, it’s going to be an uphill climb.
Releasing a film simultaneously on different platforms -- known as “day-and-date” in industryspeak -- has long been controversial. Director Steven Soderbergh pioneered the practice almost a decade ago with the indie film “Bubble,” which was released in theaters and on cable and DVD all in the same month. Multiplexes quickly pushed back, with John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, calling day-and-date releases the “biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry,” in a 2006 interview with USA Today.
But despite the outcry, the idea never fully caught on. Although the traditional release window has narrowed significantly since the 1980s -- when the average time between theatrical premieres and home video was six months -- big-budget Hollywood fare still subsists on the old model. For all the changes Hollywood has seen in the last 30 years, ticket sales (expected to total $10.5 billion domestically this year) are still the lifeblood of the movie industry.
Indeed, some countries value the culture of traditional cinema so much that they mandate even longer windows. In France, for instance, video-on-demand services must wait 36 months after a theatrical release before they can premiere a film, and filmmakers there have reacted to streaming companies like Netflix Inc. with downright hostility.
But in the United States, convenience and innovation have a way of trumping tradition, as the disruptive forces of Silicon Valley have proven time and again. With “The Interview,” movie fans have gotten their first taste of a mainstream movie made instantly available in their living rooms. Based on the flood of Twitter chatter surrounding the film’s online release Wednesday, it’s a habit many viewers could get used to.
“If only all new films were this convenient to watch,” one person tweeted.
This is not to discount the unusual circumstances surrounding the film. Amid blowback from critics who were accusing Sony of bowing to the demands of a totalitarian regime, the studio had no choice but to get “The Interview” into the hands of consumers as quickly as possible. The film’s day-and-date strategy was, at best, an accident. Whether it will be a serendipitous one remains to be seen. In an interview with the AP Wednesday, box-office analyst Jeff Bock said, unusual circumstances notwithstanding, “The Interview” will make an interesting case study, testing the waters for the viability of future simultaneous release strategies.
“For this film, in particular, it works because of the saga that goes along with it,” he told the AP. “But it’s nice to have a film we can actually use as a guinea pig for a video-on-demand release.”
A guinea pig that couldn’t come at a better time. With the movie industry coming off a flop-filled summer, and projected 4 percent decline in North American ticket sales, Hollywood needs a hero now more than ever.
Take it away, Seth.