The two tech giants on Wednesday began offering the Seth Rogen comedy at the center of a North Korea-linked cyberterrorism attack to rent or buy from their online video stores. The Sony Corp. studio also set up a new website, seetheinterview.com, to offer the movie directly.
On Thursday, about 315 independently owned U.S. theaters will start showing “The Interview.” Major theater chains including Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. last week said they wouldn’t play the movie, about a pair of television journalists recruited to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, after people who claimed responsibility for a devastating cyberattack on Sony Pictures threatened violence against venues that screen it.
The hack, and the threats, sparked a fast-changing series of events in which it appeared a major-studio movie might not be seen by the public at all, and now is getting unusually quick online distribution.
Sony last week said it wouldn’t release the movie at all. Within a few days, however, Sony Pictures executives began reaching out to video-on-demand providers in hopes some would offer the movie despite concerns about further hacking, said a person involved in the discussions. Major cable and satellite providers weren’t interested, the person said, but talks progressed with a number of Internet stores.
A major concern for all potential partners, the person said, was ensuring that they could withstand a cyberattack similar to the one that hit Sony and resulted in the theft of hundreds of thousands of emails and internal documents.
Google, which is offering the movie through its YouTube and Google Play stores, and Microsoft, which is using its Xbox Video Store, were the only companies willing and able to offer it on Dec. 24. Sony talked to Apple Inc., which is a dominant No. 1 in online movie sales and rentals with its iTunes Store, and Amazon.com Inc., which is No. 2, but neither were willing to immediately join the effort, according to the person with knowledge of the talks.
Spokesmen for Apple and Amazon declined to comment.
In a blog post Wednesday, Google’s Chief Legal Officer David Drummond said Sony began contacting companies Dec. 17 to ask if they would be able to make “The Interview” available online. “Sony and Google agreed that we could not sit on the sidelines and allow a handful of people to determine the limits of free speech in another country (however silly the content might be),” Mr. Drummond wrote.
Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith echoed that thought in his own blog post. “We decided to stand up with Sony and work with others to ensure that freedom of expression triumphs over cyberterrorism,” Mr. Smith wrote.
Sony’s PlayStation Video store said it would make the movie available in the U.S. “at a date to be determined shortly.”
Sony Pictures worked with online-payments company Stripe to help power payments for online rentals and purchases of “The Interview” on the website it created. Patrick Collison, Stripe’s co-founder, said consumers watching the movie wouldn’t be at heightened risk for having their credit-card information stolen by hackers. “This isn’t that new for us,” he said. “We’re a security target every day.”
Sony executives hope that other online stores will begin offering “The Interview” soon.
“We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release,” said Michael Lynton, Sony Entertainment’s chief executive, in a statement.
Sony Pictures will also seek ways to release “The Interview” in foreign countries, whether in theaters or online, in the coming weeks, starting with Canada, the person involved in the discussions said. Currently it is only available to watch in the U.S.
The chaos unleashed by the Sony Pictures cyberattack and subsequent threats led to a rare move by a major Hollywood studio: releasing a movie online at the same time, or slightly before, it is available to watch in theaters.
Proponents of digital distribution have long sought such a move, but studios have resisted—save for certain low-budget productions—as major theater chains have said they wouldn’t play a movie under such conditions.
Once the large cinema chains said they wouldn’t play “The Interview,” such policies became a moot point.
Google, Microsoft and Sony are charging $5.99 to rent “The Interview” and $14.99 to buy it, the standard price for movies typically released online three or more months after they hit theaters. Sony Pictures didn’t want to charge a premium price for the comedy, to avoid the impression that it was exploiting a situation involving international cyberterrorism for profit, said the person with knowledge of the matter.
It is unclear how the still-evolving release strategy will affect Sony’s financial return on the $44 million production.