UPDATE, 6:06 p.m. EST, December 17, 2014: Sony Pictures has cancelled its planned Dec. 25 release of "The Interview" after some of the nation's largest theater chains dropped or planned to delay the film's release, according to NBC.
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Americans may think of James Franco and Seth Rogen as simply the latest in a long line of silver screen stoners — not to mention the blessed souls behind the "Bound 2″ parody to end all "Bound 2″ parodies — but the story surrounding their latest caper, "The Interview," has been a study in escalating gravity.
On Tuesday, everything imploded.
"The Interview's" premiere, which was to take place at Sunshine Cinema in New York on Thursday, has been canceled, a Landmark Theatres spokesman told the Hollywood Reporter. The news came after a group calling itself Guardians of Peace, or GOP, issued a threat to movie theaters warning of Sept. 11-style attacks against those that show "The Interview," scheduled to premiere Christmas Day. Guardians of Peace is the same group that claimed responsibility for the Sony Pictures Entertainment hacks. Some investigators believe North Korea is behind the attack.
Now there's a serious question of whether anyone will screen the movie at all.
The Los Angeles Times reported Sony executives attended a meeting of the National Association of Theatre Owners on Thursday, where they told the trade group Sony would be supportive if owners elected not to screen the movie.
The Georgia-headquartered Carmike Cinemas, which operates 276 theaters and 2,904 screens in 41 states, has already taken Sony up on the offer and announced it would not be showing the movie. According to the Hollywood Reporter, exhibitors worry theater chains could be held liable were any violence to take place during screenings and requested the studio provide heavy security should they show the film. ArcLight Cinemas, the small California chain, reportedly will have an announcement Wednesday about whether it will show the Kim Jong Un assassination comedy, Deadline Hollywood reported.
This message, attributed to The Guardians of Peace, was posted on Pastebin Tuesday and sent to news organizations:
"We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places "The Interview" be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.
"Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made.
"The world will be full of fear.
"Remember the 11th of September 2001.
"We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.
"(If your house is nearby, you'd better leave.)
"Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
"All the world will denounce the SONY."
An official with the Department of Homeland Security told TMZ the threat was not credible, but Sony is not taking chances. "We are still analyzing the credibility of these statements, but at this time there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States," DHS told the site.
The studio is staring down financial losses if no one can see the film in theaters, and it's worth wondering if Sony Pictures would consider releasing the film via video-on-demand or Netflix if there aren't enough theaters willing to participate in a traditional nationwide release. Seeing as Rogen and Franco have already been pulled from appearances on "The Tonight Show," "Late Night" and "Buzzfeed Brews," such a plan could conceivably be Sony's own nuclear option. That said, with ever more information being parsed from the Sony hack data dumps by the day, the studio is on the defensive.
It's a difficult situation: Pulling the film would signal kowtowing to the demands of cybercriminals and North Korea when the studio, at the behest of Sony chief executive Kuzuo Hirai, already attempted to placate the totalitarian regime by toning down "The Interview."
Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal emailed Rogen, who co-directed the film with Evan Goldberg, telling him to make Kim's death scene less graphic after Hirai intervened, worried about retaliation from North Korea. Historically, Sony Pictures has operated separately from its Tokyo-based parent company.
In emails obtained by the New York Times, Pascal wrote Rogen concerning Kim's death scene: "You have to appreciate the fact that we haven't just dictated to you what it had to be. Given that I have never gotten one note on anything from our parent company in the entire 25 years that I have worked for them."
Hirai reportedly approved a death scene that had "no face melting, less fire in the hair, fewer embers on the face and the head explosion has been considerably obscured by the fire."
Rogen, displeased with any degree of censorship, wrote back: "This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy. That is a very damning story."
Abdicating to exhibitors on whether or not to show "The Interview" would take some of the heat off of Sony Pictures if a majority decide to pull out. The possibility that Sony will plow ahead even has its rivals, who also have movies opening on Christmas, spooked that moviegoers will avoid cineplexes altogether.
"This is bad for everyone," a staffer at a competing studio told the Hollywood Reporter. "This will stop people from going to theaters, and that affects all of us."
In a worst-case scenario, the studio could be pilloried for standing on principle for a film that, even within its own company, is not regarded as particularly good.
In an email to the president of Sony Pictures Releasing International posted by Defamer, UK Sony Pictures executive Peter Taylor wrote: "The unanimous point of view here is that this is another misfire for the pairing. Apart from one or two moments where the comedy worked ... it remained desperately unfunny and once again for the last twenty minutes stopped being a comedy altogether with a level of realistic violence that would be shocking in a horror movie."
Taylor later added: "The subject matter as a whole feels a little irresponsible ... James Franco proves once again that irritation is his strong suit which is a shame because the character could have been appealing and funny out of his hands."