Sony streams ‘The Interview’ online and makes Hollywood history

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — YouTube, the world’s largest video web site, has  agreed to help Sony Pictures distribute “The Interview” via the Internet.

The controversial Sony Pictures comedy “The Interview” was released on YouTube, Google Play, the Microsoft Xbox video game console, and a special Web site.

The movie, which started streaming online around 1 p.m. ET, costs $5.99 to rent and $14.99 to buy.

So it is having historic simultaneous release in both living rooms and, come Christmas Day, about 300 independently-owned theaters across the United States.

Sony announced the digital release just an hour ahead of time, after CNNMoney and other news organizations began to report on the studio’s plans to distribute “The Interview” through YouTube’s movie rental store. Word spread via social media, and some curious fans started watching — and live-tweeting — the movie right at 1 p.m.

Sony’s extraordinary announcement encapsulated days of sometimes desperate negotiations between the studio and a number of potential Internet distribution partners.

An earlier plan to rent “The Interview” through Apple’s iTunes store broke down, according to two of the sources, but it could re-materialize sometime after Christmas.

Representatives for both YouTube, a unit of Google, and Sony declined to comment.

Sony is said to be eager to announce some sort of online distribution deal on Wednesday, partly to capitalize on its announcement of a limited release of the movie across the United States.

The studio’s list of participating theaters includes about 300 that will start showing it on Christmas and dozens of others that will start showing it on January 1 or 2. Some of the Christmas Day screenings are already sold out.

“With what looks like a seriously limited release, limited supply is yielding substantial demand,” the fan web site Moviepilot said.

An online stream would immediately provide more supply. YouTube has a two-year-old movie rental system that it has tested mostly with relatively obscure titles; “The Interview” would be its biggest yet.

Such a deal would be groundbreaking in Hollywood — but also awfully contentious. Owners of major theater chains have steadfastly opposed proposals for simultaneous physical and digital releases, a concept known in the industry as a same-day-and-date release.

It’s been tried, with varying success, for some documentaries and niche dramas, but never for a big, broad comedy like “The Interview,” which was originally meant to premiere on 2,000 to 3,000 screens.

But extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary movie release strategies. With independent art house theaters but not the big chains on board for a Christmas release, Sony is intent on screening the film online in some form if it can find a partner.

Talks with YouTube and other potential partners have been going on for several days, but have been delayed by negotiations over financial terms and nagging questions about whether streaming the film will make digital distributors vulnerable to hacking.

The movie studio’s CEO, Michael Lynton, hinted at the talks in his Tuesday afternoon statement about the limited theatrical release.

“We are continuing our efforts to secure more platforms and more theaters so that this movie reaches the largest possible audience,” he said.

The independent theater release plan comes almost a week after Sony originally canceled the Christmas release of “The Interview” in up to 3,000 theaters. Backlash to the decision was fierce, including from President Obama, who said the movie studio had made a mistake.

Since then, Sony executives have stayed in close touch with White House officials, appraising them of the studio’s efforts to seek distribution.

Administration officials signaled that they were pleased with the theatrical and digital plans, and on Tuesday a White House spokesman said so publicly, with a statement that “the president applauds Sony’s decision to authorize screenings of the film.”

“As the president made clear, we’re a country that believes in free speech and the right of artistic expression,” the spokesman added.

On Wednesday the Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus concurred. In a followup to his Saturday message calling on theater owners to support the movie, he said the renewed Christmas release “was the right decision.”

Priebus added, “Anything else would set a horrible precedent and allow our freedom to be ceded to the whims of a totalitarian regime.”

A few minutes after Tuesday’s theatrical announcement, the star of the movie Seth Rogen tweeted: “The people have spoken! Freedom has prevailed! Sony didn’t give up! The Interview will be shown at theaters willing to play it on Xmas day!”

On Instagram, co-star James Franco called it a “victory” and said “the people and the president have spoken.”

“The Interview” is about an assassination plot against the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. It is widely believed that Sony Pictures suffered a cyberattack last month partly due to North Korea’s fury over the movie.

In light of last week’s threat against moviegoers and ongoing concerns about security at theaters, an FBI official said “we are fully engaged with Sony on the decision” to release the movie.


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