3 hard lessons Hollywood should learn from ‘The Interview’

When The Interview was released on Christmas Day, it made even bigger history than the controversial film itself—which was initially pulled by Sony Pictures after hackers claiming to represent North Korea demanded the film’s cancellation—already had. The Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy became the first major Hollywood picture to be simultaneously released both in theaters and on video-on-demand services.

The numbers on this forced experiment are in, and they aren’t pretty: While the film made $15 million in four days (making it the most successful online movie release in history), a report from of Torrent Freak shows the movie was downloaded 1.5 million times on torrent sites, meaning as many people saw it legally as those who downloaded the film illegally.

As the Hollywood Reporter notes, the bizarre release of The Interview could serve as the foundation for similar releases—called “day-and-date” releases—in the future. However, more bad lessons were learned than good. Far from paving the golden road to complete online releases, The Interview shows us why Hollywood and movie theater chains won’t be changing anytime soon, and it might not even be a good case study for this simultaneous release format in the first place.

1) Whether illegal or legal, people will always go with the cheapest option

If you wanted to watch The Interview legally, you had a myriad of easy options. The film was available on Google Play and YouTube as a $5.99 rental—as well as on Xbox Video—and was even carried by Sony Pictures itself at SeeTheInterview.com. Despite not being carried by a few VOD suppliers—namely Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes—the film remains easy to watch within the confines of copyright law.

However, the numbers released by Torrent Freak tell us availability isn’t the issue. In fact, the film might have been too easy to obtain: Few anti-piracy safeguards were put in place and even Sony’s own site had a major loophole. As the Verge reports, people who rented the film at SeeTheInterview.com were sent an original URL. The only problem with that is there was no limit on how many times one URL could be used, meaning people were sharing their URL with others in the same way they might share a Netflix account—except even Netflix bans too many users from using one account at a time.

If that wasn’t bad enough, users could also simply right-click the screen of their movie and hit “Download Movie As,” turning a rental into a purchase and making a high-definition copy of the film ready to upload to just about anywhere. While these are all preventable measures—DRM, anyone?—they highlight the many adaptations Sony and studios like it will have to make to become online content providers.

Sony could be forgiven for these slipups. In just a week’s span, they went from releasing The Interview as a typical movie, then cancelling it altogether, then desperately looking for anyone who could host the movie after being urged to do so by everyone from bloggers to the president. Putting together a VOD plan that flies in the face of the entire industry model is difficult enough; trying to rush it out before the holidays is a recipe for the disaster they ended up creating.

That said, the very nature of movie piracy means simultaneous VOD and theater releases are unlikely to ever happen. Want to record a high quality version of any video you rent online? Here’s how to do it with VLC Player. Initial box office numbers are all the movie industry has—DVD sales are almost consistently falling and will be outpaced by VOD by the end of 2015. If the dream of day-and-date release is to ever become an economic viability, Sony and its competitors would have to do the impossible: force the Internet to behave itself.

2) Movie theaters aren’t budging—and for good reasons

After Guardians of Peace—a group that purports to be from North Korea though experts remain skeptical—threatened terrorist attacks on any movie theater showing The Interview, Sony first gave theater chains the option to refuse showing the film without breaking contract. It was only after most major chains—including Regal, the country’s largest—opted to not show the movie that Sony pulled it altogether, turning a business decision into a national crisis.

Movie theaters hold immense sway over how and when films are released, and The Interview’s day-and-date release was supposed to subvert the jitters of theater chains while also releasing the film as a statement against hackers threatening freedom of expression. Insiders told the Hollywood Reporter they are “furious” with Sony for the VOD campaign and also feared further backlash if Guardians of Peace were to make more threats against their customers.

This comes at a time the movie industry as a whole is really lagging. 2014 was the the worst box office year of the last two decades, and the week of Christmas is typically viewed as a last hurrah before yearly earnings reports are published. Anything that could threaten the sanctity of that huge boost is rightfully put into question.

And largely, theaters were right. The box office had a great Christmas weekend, with the family musical Into The Woods pushing total revenue over the $200 million mark—an increase of six percent from Christmas last year. This is a boost the industry desperately needs and theaters act quite understandably when they fight against any model that could dispel it.

Which is why VOD may never be allowed to rise to the challenge. Studios and theaters depend upon one another now more than ever, and it’s not exactly a great time to threaten siphoning off ticket sales from your major exhibitors. In many ways, the initial cancellation of The Interview was the decision of the theaters, not Sony, and the threat of VOD—not to mention piracy—could easily force their hand again in the future.

3) The Interview is far from a typical case study

As has been remarked before, it is hard to think of a movie more heavily publicized than The Interview. Not only was the film’s release officially endorsed by the president, but Sony’s refusal to release it got The Interview on the front page of every paper. It dominated the news cycle for a week straight with most columnists and even constitutional law experts urging the film on as a matter of principle.

In the same way many Christians saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as sacrilege, The Interview became a patriotic salute to the First Amendment. If you’re Rogen or Franco, never in your wildest dreams did you think your movie would become a must-see for the entire nation based on principle alone—never mind whether it’s good or not.

And while that’s all great news for the filmmakers, it’s exactly this exceptionalism that makes it essentially useless as a model for future releases. While $15 million on VOD sales is nothing to shrug off, this film’s massive—if accidental—publicity campaign poisons it as a data set. How could anyone fairly compare its success to any other movie in history? The metrics of what makes a movie popular just don’t apply when seeing a film becomes akin to a national duty.

The only lessons Hollywood can walk away with are not great for those hoping for a VOD future. Despite being easily available on legitimate services, despite thriving as the banner in the world’s most famous cyberwar, The Interview only revealed how hard real change would have to be. It’s easy to imagine a scenario wherein day-and-date releases could extend Hollywood into the quickly-forming 21st century media landscape as well as actually help to combat movie piracy—but The Interview ain’t it. And if VOD can’t be proven as a model by a movie so heavily publicized even North Koreans might get to see it, then the question becomes whether any movie can.

Photo via Sony/YouTube

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.