Sony N.Y. Film Debut Canceled as Hackers Raise Threats

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Actors James Franco and Seth Rogen at
Actors James Franco, left, and Seth Rogen arrive for the premiere of the film "The Interview" at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, California on Dec. 11. Sony, which had said it would go ahead with the movie, told exhibitors they’re free to pull the film from theaters after hackers invoked the Sept. 11 attacks to disrupt its release. Photographer: -/AFP via Getty Images

Sony Corp.’s New York premiere of “The Interview” was canceled and the fourth-largest U.S. cinema chain won’t screen the film after threats of violence from the hackers behind a devastating cyberattack on the studio.

The Dec. 18 debut at New York’s Sunshine Cinema has been canceled, the venue’s operator, Landmark Theatres, said in an e-mailed statement. Carmike Cinemas Inc., which has more than 2,900 screens, won’t show the film, said a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be named as they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.

Sony, which had said it would go ahead with the movie, told exhibitors they’re free to pull the film from theaters after hackers invoked the Sept. 11 attacks to disrupt its release. The group that seized control of Sony’s computer systems last month is trying to prevent distribution of the film about a U.S. TV crew recruited to assassinate North Korea’s leader, Sony’s lawyers told media outlets.

“We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time,” the hackers wrote in a reference to theaters that will show the film. “(If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)”

Executives at Sony Pictures spoke with exhibitors Tuesday in the U.S., telling them they’re free not to screen the Dec. 25 release, according to people with knowledge of the situation. The studio still plans to release the film and will support whatever decision exhibitors make regarding the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy, said one person.

The decision by Carmike was reported earlier by the Hollywood Reporter.

Global Release

The threats against cinemas have broader implications because they typically are located inside or near shopping malls. The movie, which isn’t being released in Asia, is scheduled to debut in Australia on Jan. 22 and New Zealand a week later. The film is slated for release in more than 60 countries, according to its website.

Sony set its screening schedule before the hacking, according to a Dec. 11 e-mailed statement from the Tokyo-based company. Robert Rinderman, a spokesman for Columbus, Georgia-based Carmike who works for JCIR, had no immediate comment.

Representatives of the three biggest theater chains -- Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Cinemark Holdings Inc. -- didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Early Concerns

Executives at Sony were concerned about North Korea’s reaction months before the movie’s scheduled release. Lynton, a board member at the Rand Corp. think tank, asked Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst there, to watch the film and assess the potential threat.

“Ironically, there are parts of it that I think the North Koreans will love, but other parts they are going to really hate,” Bennett wrote to Lynton in a June 20 e-mail. Movies have satirized the North Koreans before, Bennett said.

Lynton also communicated with Under Secretary of State Dan Russel, who said that while the North Koreans would be upset, neither the Japanese nor the U.S. had much to worry about.

“He felt very strongly that this would not result in a nuclear attack by the Koreans,” Lynton wrote in a June 26 e-mail to Nicole Seligman, president of Sony Corporation of America.

Sony’s Hollywood studio had its computers attacked by cyberterrorists objecting to the comedy about a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a siege that’s led to release of employee data including salaries and health records. The film is unusual in depicting the onscreen death of Kim, a sitting head of state.

‘Potential Risk’

“The Interview” could have generated as much as $100 million at the U.S. box office by the end of the March based on similar movies and those with Franco and Rogen, Eric Wold, an analyst at B. Riley & Co., said in a report. A complete loss of the film would affect as much as 1.9 percent of exhibitor revenue.

“We believe that the potential risk of the hackers carrying out any threats clearly outweighs the potential minimal loss of revenues to the exhibitors,” Wold wrote. “Should increased concern by moviegoers keep some of them away from theaters to any degree, there could be risk to other important 2014 movies to be released in the coming weeks.”

There is no credible intelligence to indicate there is an active plot against movie theaters in the U.S., said an official with the Department of Homeland Security who asked not to be identified during an investigation.

Korean Links

The hackers, who call themselves Guardians of Peace, have been linked to a suspected North Korean group known as DarkSeoul, according to two people familiar with the company’s investigation.

Sony’s top Hollywood executives have apologized to employees for the breach of their privacy and vowed that the purported hackers won’t bring down the Culver City, California-based studio. Each day’s efforts to get the studio operating normally have been met with new data releases from the hackers, media reports and now a lawsuit from ex-employees.

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