Sony Pictures Entertainment has told US cinemas they can cancel plans to show The Interview, hours after hackers invoking the memory of the September 11 2001 terror attacks issued ominous threats against film-goers and patrons of the comedy.
The first chain to axe planned showings of The Interview was Carmike Cinemas, according to trade publications The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Carmike operates 247 cinemas across the US.
The decision to debut the film on Christmas Day is now up to individual cinema chains.
The development followed threats by the hackers, calling themselves Guardians of Peace, over the film, which depicts an assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The data dump was what the hackers called the beginning of a “Christmas gift”. But GOP, as the group is known, included a message warning that people should stay away from places where The Interview will be shown, including an upcoming premiere.
Invoking 9/11, it urged people to leave their homes if located near cinemas showing the film.
The National Association of Theatre Owners had no comment, while Sony and individual cinema chains did not respond to requests for comment.
The hackers also released a trove of data files including thousands of emails from the inbox of Sony Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton.
In The Interview, Seth Rogen and James Franco star as television journalists involved in a CIA plot to assassinate Kim. Its New York premiere is set for tomorrow at Manhattan’s Landmark Sunshine and the film is expected to hit cinemas nationwide on Christmas Day. It premiered in Los Angeles last week.
Rogen and Franco pulled out of all media appearances yesterday, cancelling a Buzzfeed Q&A and Rogen’s planned guest spot tomorrow on Late Night With Seth Meyers. The two stars appeared on Monday on Good Morning America and Rogen guested on The Colbert Report.
A representative for Rogen said he had no comment and a spokeswoman for Franco did not respond to queries.
The nearly 32,000 emails to and from Sony Pictures Entertainment chief Mr Lynton – from as recently as last month – include information about casting decisions and total costs for upcoming films, release schedules for Sony films through to 2018 and corporate financial records, such as royalties from iTunes, Spotify and Pandora music services.
They include information about new electronics devices such as DVD players and mobile phones and budget figures for the Motion Picture Association of America, of which Sony is a member, and at least one email about a senior Sony executive who left the company. The emails also include messages about public appearances, tennis matches, home repairs, dinner invitations and business introductions.
The FBI said it was aware of the threats and “continues to work collaboratively with our partners to investigate this matter”. FBI director James Comey said last week that investigators were still trying to determine who was responsible for the hack.
Speculation about a North Korean link to the Sony hacking has centred on the communist country’s angry denunciation of the film. Over the summer, North Korea warned that the film’s release would be an “act of war that we will never tolerate” and the US would face “merciless” retaliation.
The New York Police Department, after co-ordinating with the FBI and Sony, plans to beef up security at the Manhattan premiere, said John Miller, the NYPD’s counter-terrorism chief.
“Having read through the threat material myself, it’s actually not crystal clear whether it’s a cyber response that they are threatening or whether it’s a physical attack,” he said. “That’s why we’re continuing to evaluate the language of it, and also the source of it.
“I think our primary posture is going to be is going to have a police presence and a response capability that will reassure people who may have heard about this and have concerns.”
Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck said his department took the hackers’ threats “very seriously” and would be taking extra precautions during the Christmas break at cinemas.
In their warning, the hackers suggested Sony employees make contact via several disposable email addresses ending in yopmail.com. Frenchman Frederic Leroy, who started up the yopmail site in 2004, was surprised to learn the Sony hackers were using yopmail addresses. He said there was no way he could identify the users.
“I cannot see the identities of people using the address ... there is no name, no first name,” he said.
He said yopmail was used around the world but there were “hundreds and hundreds” of other disposable email sites.
Mr Leroy, who lives in Barr, outside Strasbourg, said he heard about the Sony hackers yesterday on the radio but knew nothing more and had not been contacted by any authorities.
Since Sony Pictures was hacked by GOP late last month in one of the largest data breaches against an American company, everything from financial figures to salacious emails between top Sony executives has been dumped online.
Separately, two former Sony film production workers have sued Sony Pictures Entertainment over the data breach. They claim the Culver City, California, company waited too long to notify employees that data such as Social Security numbers, salaries and medical records had been stolen.
The filing comes one day after two other former Sony employees filed a suit accusing the company of negligence in not bolstering its defences against hackers before the attack.
It claims emails and other information leaked by the hackers show that Sony’s information-technology department and its top lawyer believed its security system was vulnerable to attack, but the company did not act on those warnings.
Both cases seek class-action status to represent current and former Sony employees whose private data was posted online.