After mounting pressure from theater owners, celebrities and even the White House, Sony has decided to release "The Interview" on about 200 screens beginning Christmas Day, reversing an earlier plan to scrap the opening of the controversial comedy.
The about-face may help Sony address critics who accused it of capitulating to the anonymous hackers, believed to be from North Korea, who launched a crippling attack on the studio's computer systems. But even as filmmakers and free-speech advocates hailed Tuesday's announcement, the move put the studio in an awkward situation.
The film's limited release drives a further wedge between Sony and the nation's largest theater owners, who blame the studio for yanking away a potential hit. It was supposed to open on 3,000 screens before Sony and theater chains shelved the movie.
Theater owners are also upset that Sony is negotiating to release the movie simultaneously on a video-on-demand platform. Distribution of a new movie outside theaters has been fought aggressively by the country's theater chains and avoided by all but the most niche film distributors.
"They could have a full theatrical release. Instead they have a token," said one theater executive who asked not to be identified because it could harm his relationship with the studio.
The events unfolded quickly Tuesday, four days after the film was shelved.
One by one, independent chains around the country announced they'd run "The Interview." Theaters in the maverick 19-venue Alamo Drafthouse will be among the leading locations to play the film. In the Los Angeles metro area, the comedy will play at the Los Feliz 3 and at several Regency theaters in Southern California.
Releasing the Seth Rogen comedy that features the fictionalized assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives moviegoers a chance to see the controversial piece on schedule. It also offers Sony a retort to high-profile critics, such as George Clooney and President Obama, who had slammed the studio for backing away from the release.
"We have never given up on releasing 'The Interview' and we're excited our movie will be in a number of theaters on Christmas Day," Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton said. "At the same time, we are continuing our efforts to secure more platforms and more theaters so that this movie reaches the largest possible audience."
Those efforts include the possible release via streaming and on-demand services such as iTunes or Amazon, or a smaller entity that would similarly allow viewers to pay to stream or rent the film. Sony was also in talks with pay-TV provider Dish Network over the weekend, people familiar with the matter said.
Large digital companies, however, are thought to be nervous about partnering with Sony given the hacking that over the last few weeks has exposed executives' most sensitive correspondence.
Some reports have suggested that Sony might put "The Interview" on its own free streaming service, Crackle, which is best known for the Jerry Seinfeld Web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." But Sony has batted down those reports.
Doug Endicott, an executive with the theater consulting firm ESP Film Buyers, said he was told by Sony that the digital plan involved streaming and not cable or satellite on-demand services, describing a "method that you could pay $10 and see it online."
But while a digital release would enable the movie to reach markets far removed from the art house venues, it would also rankle the nation's biggest theater owners. Large chains such as Regal and AMC are fiercely opposed to so-called day-and-date releases, fearing that making new movies available to home viewers would discourage consumers from watching it in movie theaters.
The disagreement over a digital release played into larger tensions between Sony and theater owners after hackers last week threatened physical harm on moviegoers who saw "The Interview." Before that, the hackers had stolen and leaked email and other sensitive data in a breach that went public Nov. 24.
Worried about a potential threat, Sony said it canceled the movie after large chains backed away from the film.
But theater owners have been pointing the finger at the studio for originally giving them the OK to not run the film amid the threats. Then Sony blamed the nation's four big theater chains for forcing the studio to cancel the original release.
It was unclear whether the big chains would try to strike a deal with Sony to screen "The Interview" if the film is released to smaller rivals and on demand. Representatives of Regal, AMC, Cinemark and Carmike declined to comment on the matter.
Sony would not comment on negotiations for a further release of the film.
Security also remained a concern for theaters. In their message last week, the hackers warned of a "bitter fate" to those involved with the film. The message cited Sept. 11 and said "the world will be full of fear.... We recommend you to keep yourself distant from [the theaters]."
Authorities have said there was no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against theaters from the Sony hackers, and there have been no known new threats.
Sony and smaller theaters had been talking for the last few days after Art House Convergence, a coalition of independent theater owners, launched an online petition from hundreds of theater owners urging Sony to reconsider screening the film.
"We wanted to make what we thought was a small but powerful statement from the exhibition industry," said Russ Collins, executive director of Art House Convergence, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. "This was a small victory for free speech."
Theater owners learned of the about-face early Tuesday morning when Sony began calling them to set up distribution of the movie.
"It's good to get this thing out," said Regency President Lyndon Golin. "It seems like there was a groundswell of support for the movie, at least from patrons. Theaters have stepped up."
Whether the release will also lead to profitability for Sony remains an open question.
"The Interview" cost $44 million to produce, and the company was in the midst of an expensive marketing campaign when it put the brakes on last week.
Even a strong opening in the 200 art house theaters probably would result in just about a few million dollars in receipts on its opening weekend, half of which would typically be split with theater owners. Before it was pulled, the film was estimated to make $25 million over the four-day holiday weekend.
It also remains unclear how a broad comedy with Rogen at its center will mesh with other offerings at the art house venues, such as the Los Feliz 3, where the movie will play alongside the British period drama "The Imitation Game."
The added publicity heat, though, could boost sales.
In Atlanta, one of the first cities where theaters began selling tickets, Jens Dietrich was among the first to nab a seat. He had been disappointed when the film was pulled from theaters.
"I'm way more excited about the movie now than I was before," Dietrich said.