‘The Interview’ makes $1 million at box office

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Movie poster for "The Interview" starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. (Credit: MGN Online)

“The Interview” banked almost $1 million at the box office on Christmas Day, and it could make a couple million more over the long holiday weekend.

But it could potentially make a lot more money online, through $5.99 movie rentals and future sales to streaming services like Netflix.

The results of Wednesday’s online release are not known, but if one million people rented it through YouTube, that’s a cool $6 million. The movie was also made available on Google Play, Microsoft’s Xbox video store and a special Sony web site called SeeTheInterview.com.

Sony Pictures’ unconventional release of the movie — a plan that was cobbled together by necessity — illustrates the tension in Hollywood between at-home and at-the-theater viewing. And it shows how the industry’s money-making calculus could change in the future.

For a broad, star-powered picture like “The Interview,” a big-tent release in 2,000 to 3,000 theaters is the top choice for a movie studio like Sony Pictures. It’s the difference between a $1 million and a $10 million box office total.

But financiers and studios now have new options, as “The Interview” is demonstrating. When big movie theater chains shied away from the movie, Sony recruited digital distributors and a smattering of independently-owned theaters that usually play more highbrow fare.

Did its digital availability hurt physical sales? Not on Christmas: some of the 331 theaters that premiered the movie reported sellout crowds.

This gives weight to the argument that watching at home and watching in a theater are two different kinds of experiences.

As Rogen said on Twitter, “I need to say that a comedy is best viewed in a theater full of people, so if you can, I’d watch it like that.” If watching online, he added, “call some friends over” to make it more like a theatrical screening.

But if theatrical interest in the movie subsides quickly, that could undercut the argument.

These sorts of debates about digital releases have been raging in Hollywood for some time now, spurred by experiments with online launches (some documentaries already come out on the Internet at the same time they do in theaters) and the desires of companies like Netflix to speed up the time between physical and digital premieres.

Major theater chains like AMC and Regal objected to Sony’s plans for a digital “Interview” release, and that’s part of the reason why Sony worked with independent theaters instead.

Exact data from the Christmas box office will come in later, but industry estimates of almost $1 million were subject to interpretation — Variety called it “an impressive launch,” while Deadline.com called it “decent” but “certainly not as jawdropping as the headlines the film has spurred.”

Sony and its digital partners haven’t released any rental data, but on Friday morning the movie remained the top-seller on YouTube and Google Play’s movie rental sites.

More stories on the Sony hack here.