The shape of movies to come

So The Interview got its public showing on Christmas Day in the United States in spite of hacks on Sony Pictures’ computer systems, angry denials by the North Koreans that they were behind the hacks, and intervention by the US President.

The political comedy film stars Seth Rogen and James Franco as journalists who secure an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (played by Randall Park), and who are then recruited by the CIA and instructed to assassinate him.

In what would have been a farce if the situation hadn’t been so serious, the North Koreans accused the US government of state-sponsored terrorism and said the release of the movie would be an act of war. There were also dire threats by shady online groups during the past few weeks to kill cinema-goers if Sony Pictures did release the R-rated movie.

Well, release it they did in spite of announcing a clear intent in the previous week not to release it at all.

Much of the media reporting I’ve seen focuses on the cinema release – The Interview was showing at 320+ independent cinemas across the United States starting on Christmas Day, with box office takings to date reportedly around $2.8 million.

Yet what I found far more interesting were the other distribution methods Sony Pictures employed to make the movie more widely available. This is how Sony announced the movie’s public availability:

Fans can watch The Interview on several platforms including:

Google Play: the movie is available to buy or rent at play.google.com, and can be watched in the Play Movies & TV app on Android and iOS phones or tablets, or streamed in the living room via Chromecast, Roku or the Nexus Player.

YouTube: the movie is available at youtube.com/movies and can be watched on the web, in the YouTube app, or on select living room devices like Chromecast, Apple TV, PlayStation and Xbox.

Microsoft’s Xbox Video: the movie is available to buy or rent on the Xbox Video app on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and XboxVideo.com.

SeetheInterview.com: In addition, The Interview is available at the dedicated website www.seetheinterview.com, which is sponsored by Sony Pictures and powered by Kernel and with payments through Stripe, a secure payment platform.

In addition to Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft and www.seetheinterview.com, The Interview is also being released in more than 300 United States theaters on December 25th.

It struck me straightaway that digital and online are front and center in the distribution infrastructure, with the physical (cinema) release very much the supporting act. And, releasing a movie this way – enabling people to access and view it through online rental or purchase – is the first time a major studio has done that on the same day of its cinema release.

Although the US box office has produced the lion’s share of viewing sales so far, it’s being speculated that revenues from the movie on the various digital platforms could potentially make this method likelier for movie distribution in the future, if not for the specific reasons surrounding The Interview.

And let’s not forget one thing – all of this is available only in the United States (of course there are workarounds if you’re outside the US) and it’s an R-rated movie, restricting the audience potential in cinemas at least.

It’s a big hit with content pirates, too.

In any case, could this be a clear signal on what we are likely to see in future for movie releases, whether by big studios or indie producers? I’d say it’s a sure bet that digital and online will play a much more prominent role if not the leading role in future.

Imagine – you want to watch the latest Hollywood film on your 50+-inch Ultra HD TV in the comfort and privacy of home? You have many choices of the delivery methods (see above). Then imagine services like Netflix joining the streaming distribution party.

Or, you want the IMAX or other big-screen experience with the popcorn and cokes? Head to your nearest multiplex with its digital audio-visual immersion.

And all the choices happen at once – no more staggered releases.

Traditional mainstream movie distribution and marketing focused only on the cinema and subsequent Blu-ray/DVD sales just got turned on its head.

Finally, what about the PR surrounding The Interview? There’s been commentary and opinion galore over recent months suggesting the whole thing is just a huge PR stunt, with others offering opinion to explain why it couldn’t possibly be a PR stunt.

Whether it was or not, one thing is sure – Sony Pictures has gained publicity for a movie that has been panned by critics yet looks very likely to receive widespread attention as a result of all the publicity about it (and the bigger picture about the extensive hacking of Sony Pictures that extends beyond The Interview).

Will I watch The Interview when it’s available here in the UK? Probably, just to see for myself what all the fuss is about. And especially if I can stream it to my TV or computer rather than go to the cinema.

Good PR result.

[Update Dec 29:] The Interview has managed to rake in $15 million since its online debut on Christmas Day, reports Mashable:

“Through Saturday, December 27, including all of its online distribution platforms, The Interview has been rented or purchased online more than 2 million times,” read a statement from Sony Pictures. “Total consumer spending through Saturday for The Interview online is over $15 million.”

“[A]fter only four days, The Interview already ranks as Sony Pictures #1 online film of all time,” read the statement from Sony Pictures.

Recode reports that Apple has now joined the ranks of distributors:

It took Apple a few days, but it’s joining the club: Starting [Sunday December 28], iTunes users in the U.S. and Canada can rent and purchase “The Interview,” Sony’s controversial comedy.

The movie became available at Apple’s store at 1 pm ET [Sunday].

The Interview was a huge online success, says Quartz – but for Google rather than for Sony:

Sony’s big internet video gamble seems to have paid off: The Interview, which the company offered for online rental and purchase on Christmas Eve, earned more than $15 million during its first four days on the internet. The film was rented or purchased more than 2 million times from Dec. 24-27, making it the studio’s most successful online release ever, while also grossing an additional $2.85 million from 331 independent North American theaters over the four-day holiday weekend.

[…] The film’s online success might be a qualified moral victory for Sony, but it definitely won’t be a financial one—and that’s even before calculating the significant financial fallout from the hacking scandal, which could be as much as $100 million.

Instead, the biggest winners from the weekend are the internet outlets that first streamed The Interview in North America. Google’s two sites—Google Play and YouTube Movies—were responsible for the bulk of sales, and Google also benefitted from exposing its platforms to consumers who regularly choose iTunes, or other VOD platforms that did not carry the film.

Undoubtedly further analysis will come in the following days.