Sony Interview
Sony’s assassination satire "The Interview" earned a record $15 million in online rentals and sales during the four-day holiday weekend. Sony Pictures

After provoking a cyberattack, anonymous death threats and condemnation from a totalitarian government, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s “The Interview” survived its opening weekend unscathed. Although it’s still unclear if the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy will make back its production budget, it’s off to a pretty good start, grossing about $18 million during the four-day holiday weekend online and in theaters.

Sony’s decision to release the film online before its theatrical debut turned out to be a smart business move. The studio said Monday the film earned more than $15 million in online sales and rentals. It made $2.8 million more in box-office ticket sales, opening in limited release at 331 theaters on Christmas Day.

All told, the bro comedy heard around the world was the fifth highest-grossing movie of the holiday weekend, right behind Ben Stiller’s “Night at the Museum 3,” which took in $20 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Sony’s North Korea-set farce performed better than Paramount Pictures’ “The Gambler,” which also opened on Christmas Day. The Mark Wahlberg crime drama earned an estimated $14.3 million.

According to Torrent Freak, “The Interview” was also the most-pirated movie of the week. Within 20 hours of being made available online, the movie was downloaded illegally more than 750,000 times. It passed the 1.5 million mark after only two days.

“The Interview” reportedly cost $44 million to produce and $36 million to promote and market, so it has a way to go before it’s in the black. But for a midbudget comedy with limited international appeal, it’s not a bad opening weekend. The film’s performance is especially impressive given that it was denied wide theatrical release by multiplexes, which declined to show the film after anonymous hackers threatened violence against moviegoers.

Most Hollywood releases rely heavily on box-office ticket sales, so Sony’s willingness to upend traditional distribution channels is likely to rekindle debate over the viability of day-and-date release strategies, which in the past have triggered pushback from cinema owners.

Of course, “The Interview” also benefited from extraordinary circumstances. After the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations pointed the finger at North Korea, many viewers saw it as their patriotic duty to pay to see the film. However, Silicon Valley security firm Norse said North Korea probably had nothing to do with the hack and said it isolated the origin to a former Sony employee and five known "hacktivists" motivated by Sony's copyright policies.

Google Inc. not only championed the film’s online release as a win for free speech, it also aided sales with a direct link on its homepage -- arguably the most valuable piece of real estate on the Internet.

Sony said “The Interview” had been purchased or rented online more than 2 million times during the holiday weekend, making it the highest-selling online movie in the studio’s history. If that doesn’t make Kim Jong Un’s head explode, we don’t know what will.

Christopher Zara is a senior writer who covers media and culture. Got a news tip? Email me here. Follow me on Twitter @christopherzara.