Sony Pictures Entertainment made the shock decision to cancel the Christmas Day release of controversial comedy The Interview amid the threat of terrorist attacks from hackers and America’s largest multiplex chains pulling the film from their screens.
The cancellation was a startling blow to the Hollywood studio that has been shaken by hacker leaks and intimidations over the last several weeks by an anonymous group calling itself Guardians of Peace, which invoked the September 11, 2001, attacks.
A US official has said federal investigators have now connected the Sony hacking to North Korea and are expected to make an announcement in the near future.
Sony said it was cancelling The Interview release “in light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film”. The studio said it respected and shared in the exhibitors’ concerns.
“We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public,” said its statement.
“We stand by our film-makers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”
Seemingly putting to rest any hope of a delayed theatrical or video-on-demand release Sony Pictures spokesman Jean Guerin later added: “Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film.”
Earlier, Regal Cinemas, AMC Entertainment and Cinemark Theatres – the three top cinema chains in North America – announced that they were postponing any showings of The Interview.
The comedy, about a TV host (James Franco) and producer (Rogen) tasked by the CIA to assassinate North Korea leader Kim Jong Un (played by Randall Park), has inflamed North Korea for parodying its leader.
Regal said it was delaying The Interview ”due to wavering support of the film ... by Sony Pictures, as well as the ambiguous nature of any real or perceived security threats“. AMC noted ”the overall confusion and uncertainty“ surrounding the film.
Canada’s leading cinema chain Cineplex also postponed its planned showings of the film. Spokeswoman Pat Marshall said: “Cineplex takes seriously its commitment to the freedom of artistic expression, but we want to reassure our guests and staff that their safety and security is our No 1 priority. We look forward to a time when this situation is resolved and those responsible are apprehended.”
Sony had offered cinemas the option of bowing out and when so many of them did, it was left with little choice.
On Tuesday, the hacking group threatened violence at “the very times and places” showing The Interview.
The Department of Homeland Security said there was “no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theatres”, but noted it was still analysing messages from the group. The warning prompted New York and Los Angeles to address measures to beef up security.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the US government had no involvement in Sony’s decision, adding that artists and entertainers had the right to produce and distribute whatever content they wanted.
“We take very seriously any attempt to threaten or limit artists’ freedom of speech or of expression,” she said.
President Barack Obama commented on the hacking in an interview with ABC News, saying: “The cyberattack is very serious. We’re investigating and we’re taking it seriously. We’ll be vigilant. If we see something that we think is serious and credible then we’ll alert the public. But for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies.”
With a modest budget of about 40 million dollars (£26m), The Interview was predicted to earn around 30 million (£19m) in its opening weekend before Tuesday’s threats. Sony also stands to lose tens of millions in marketing costs already incurred.
“This attack went to the heart and core of Sony’s business – and succeeded,” said Avivah Litan, a cyber-security analyst at research firm Gartner. “We haven’t seen any attack like this in the annals of US breach history.”
Sony was also under pressure from other studios. Christmas is one of the most important box office weekends of the year and the threats could have scared film-goers away. Releases include Universal’s Unbroken, Paramount’s The Gambler, and Disney’s Into The Woods. Sony’s musical Annie, also expected to be a big earner, debuts tomorrow.
Sony’s announcement was met with widespread distress across Hollywood and by others watching the unfolding attack on the corporation. A former senior national security official in the Bush administration said the company made the wrong decision.
“When you are confronted with a bully the idea is not to cave but to punch him in the nose,” Fran Townsend, Mr Bush’s homeland security adviser, said.
“This is a horrible, I think, horrible precedent.”