‘The Interview’ Helps YouTube Go Beyond Cat Videos

Google Inc.’s agreement to show Sony Corp.’s “The Interview” gives its YouTube video-streaming website a chance to show that it’s more than just a destination for funny cat videos.

Sony Pictures said the controversial movie is available online today on Google Play and YouTube Movies for $5.99 to rent and $14.99 to own. Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox video console and www.seetheinterview.com, a website sponsored by Sony, will also show the comedy.

“The Interview” adds to a growing collection of films offered by Google that include “Divergent” and “The Lego Movie,” and is part of the Web company’s drive to bolster its premium content to compete with Apple Inc.’s music and video library. Google, which runs the most popular Internet-search engine, is also seeking to keep users coming to its Web properties as digital rivals such as Netflix Inc. and Hulu LLC draw more Internet traffic. By debuting “The Interview,” Google now has the chance to prove to a wider audience that it can sell premium content, according to James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

“Google has needed a way to show love to studios for a long time and this will do it,” McQuivey said in an interview. “Most people don’t think of” YouTube “as a distribution platform for feature film. It might get a film up there after it’s been out for a year or two, so this is a good move.”

On Demand

The online rollout marks the highest-profile feature film to debut on the Internet and follows Sony’s last-minute efforts to get the movie out. Hackers linked to North Korea launched a cyber-attack on the studio’s computers last month and threatened violence if the film -- a satire starring Seth Rogen and James Franco with a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un -- was shown. In response to the warning, major theater chains canceled the film’s debut on Christmas Day.

The Web debut of “The Interview” may be what’s needed for film-watchers such as Debbie Reed, 62, in Newton, New Jersey, to give YouTube’s pay service a try. The retiree said she’s more accustomed to watching YouTube videos for knitting and other crafts.

“I didn’t know you can do it from YouTube -- it’s usually Netflix or Apple,” Reed said. “It’ll be interesting to find out what all of this hype has been about.”

The unconventional rollout of “The Interview” gives the simultaneous theatrical and online release its first big test. Typically, such debuts have been reserved for smaller films, such as independent movies that may not have enough widespread appeal to warrant a big theatrical marketing budget, according to Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Rentrak, a market-research firm that tracks the movie business.

More than 300 theaters -- many of them independent -- rallied around the U.S. to show the film beginning Dec. 25.

Free Speech

Previously, low-profile releases such as 2011’s “Margin Call,” which starred Kevin Spacey, and 2012’s “Arbitrage” and “Bachelorette” were released simultaneously via video-on-demand services and in movie theaters.

“We’ve seen some successes for VOD on the same day as the theatrical release, but it’s always been for smaller movies,” Dergarabedian said.

While Google may see increased attention for its video services, it’s also another example of the Mountain View, California-based company taking a stand on political grounds.

“After discussing all the issues, 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,” David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post.

Taking Risks

More than 6 billion hours of video are watched on the service each month, and YouTube reaches more U.S. adults of ages 18-34 each month than any cable network, according to the company’s website. Google bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.3 billion, seeking to add more user-generated video content.

“Knowing Google’s mantra regarding access to information, I would assume the primary motivator is providing the public with an opportunity to see the film,” Colin Sebastian, an analyst at Robert W Baird & Co. in San Francisco, said.

By streaming “The Interview” online, Google, Microsoft and Sony risk provoking denial-of-service hacking attacks, which have previously disabled Microsoft and Sony gaming services. Hacktivists have tweeted that they intend to target Microsoft and Sony with such attacks on Christmas, and that could expand to Google as well.

Killer Funny

Denial-of-service assaults can be difficult to deflect, even if a company has ample warning they are coming, because they are executed by thousands of hacked computers performing normal but database-intensive activities, such as performing searches or downloading videos, all at the same time.

“The Interview” garnered a rating of 54 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes website, and Peter Travers, a reviewer for Rolling Stone, said that while the movie was “stupid” and in “bad taste,” it was also “killer funny.”

“Even when the jokes miss, or grow repetitive, you can’t help rooting for it,” Travers, who gave the movie a rating of three out of four stars, wrote.

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