Concerned about threats to moviegoers, theater owners are starting to pull "The Interview" from their holiday lineups amid a relentless cyberattack that has wreaked havoc on Sony Pictures Entertainment.
The dropping of the film from the lucrative holiday season delivers yet another blow to Sony Pictures, which Tuesday was hit by a lawsuit on behalf of current and former employees whose confidential information was exposed in the attack. Hackers also released emails sent and received by Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton, the latest in a series of email disclosures aimed at embarrassing top studio executives.
Landmark Theatres said Thursday's New York premiere of "The Interview" at Sunshine Cinema had been canceled.
The hackers, calling themselves Guardians of Peace, say they are punishing Sony for making a film that depicts the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Their tactics took a darker turn Tuesday, as they urged moviegoers to steer clear of "The Interview," which is scheduled to hit theaters Dec. 25.
"The world will be full of fear," the group said in a statement that referenced the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. "Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment. All the world will denounce the SONY."
Federal law enforcement officials have "no credible intelligence" of a plot to attack movie theaters, according to a Department of Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments. The official said local law enforcement authorities are being briefed on developments, and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck told reporters that his department takes the "threats very seriously and we will take extra precautions during the holidays at theaters."
Late Tuesday, Carmike Cinemas, the fourth-largest theater chain, with 2,917 screens in 41 states, became the first major exhibitor to scrap plans to screen "The Interview," said a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss the decision.
The decision followed an emergency meeting of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, where Sony executives told theater owners that they would be free to drop "The Interview" from their holiday schedules without breaching their contractual agreements or jeopardizing future bookings of Sony films, according to people familiar with the meeting.
Carmike and representatives of the other major chains, Regal, AMC and Cinemark, declined to comment.
Even if the hackers are bluffing about a terror attack on moviegoers, they have shown that they can cripple Sony — and might potentially do the same to the theater chains, said Peter Toren, a cybersecurity expert who has worked in the Department of Justice.
"Given the sophisticated nature of this attack, it's not impossible to believe they would have the capabilities to disrupt the showing of 'The Interview,'" he said. "They can interfere, for example, with the way movie tickets are sold online. That would be the next logical place they could go and cause a lot of disruption, and that would cost the theaters a lot of money."
Phil Zacheretti, president and chief executive of Phoenix Big Cinemas Management in Knoxville, Tenn., said he was mulling over whether to show the movie.
"At this moment we have it booked for all of our theaters," Zacheretti said, but added: "Things could change in a moment's notice. It's a very serious issue. Our perspective is we usually show movies and the public can decide what they want to see. But we don't want to put anyone at risk."
Other theater owners said they were not intimidated by the threat.
"We have an absolute right to play it," said Tom Stephenson, a partner in Dallas-based Look Cinemas. "We'll take every appropriate precaution."
Along with fewer theaters releasing the film, Sony is apparently scaling down its marketing campaign. Last Thursday's premiere in Los Angeles was an unusually quiet affair, and on Tuesday the movie's stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco, canceled upcoming media appearances.
As the crisis widened, politicians who have until now been largely quiet on the Sony attack began speaking out.
"Today's threat against moviegoers is unconscionable and the perpetrators must be brought to justice," U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "Law enforcement is investigating these threats and will do everything possible to keep the public safe."
Sony declined to comment on the threat.
At an all-hands meeting at the studio Monday, Lynton vowed that the hackers would not "take us down. You should not be worried about the future of this studio." That did not seem to damp a growing sense of dread among the more than 6,000 employees at the Culver City studio, according to company insiders, especially as more confidential documents were released.
Hackers on Tuesday released about 32,000 of Lynton's emails that date from November 2008 to November 2014.
The emails offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Lynton and other executives responded to the burgeoning crisis over "The Interview."
In September, Rogen emailed Lynton thanking him for "helping us resolve this issue with the movie.… I'm so happy that it looks like it's finally behind us." It wasn't clear what Rogen was referring to by "this issue."
Other emails reflect the unease of several executives over the film.
Nicole Seligman, president of Sony Corp. of America, emailed Lynton on Oct. 8 with a link to a Business Insider article with the subject line "Possible Coup In North Korea."
Red flags over North Korea were raised far earlier. Keith Weaver, Sony's executive vice president of worldwide government affairs, emailed Lynton, Sony Pictures co-Chairman Amy Pascal and other executives July 9 to notify them that North Korea had brought its concerns about "The Interview" to the U.N. General Assembly Security Council.
Shiro Kambe, a spokesman for Sony Corp., also notified Seligman and former Sony public relations chief Charles Sipkins of his concerns.
"We understand that several US media recently reported about North Korea's decision to put two detained American tourists on trial," Kambe wrote July 2.
Compounding matters for Sony, the studio was hit with two lawsuits over the massive computer breach that exposed the personal information, including medical records, of thousands of current and former employees.
Lawyers representing two former Sony Pictures employees on Monday night filed a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles. It seeks class-action status.
The complaint on behalf of former and current employees alleges the Culver City studio was negligent by ignoring warnings that its computer system was prone to attack. A similar suit was filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Sony declined to comment on the lawsuits.