Critics and early viewers are agreed that The Interview is less than a masterpiece, but thanks to threats from hackers that nearly derailed its release, it has become an event.
Hundreds of US cinemas made Christmas Day arrangements for the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Sony Pictures initially called off the release after major cinema chains dropped the movie that was to have opened at as many as 3,000 screens.
But with US president Barack Obama among others criticising the decision, Sony bosses changed their minds. The Interview became available on a variety of digital platforms on Wednesday night, including Google Play, YouTube Movies Microsoft’s Xbox Video and a Sony website.
Meanwhile, Sony and independent cinemas agreed to release it in more than 300 venues on Christmas Day.
“We are taking a stand for freedom,” said Lee Peterson, manager of the Cinema Village East in Manhattan, where most of yesterday’s seven screenings had sold out by early afternoon.
“We want to show the world that Americans will not be told what we can or cannot watch. Personally, I am not afraid.”
At the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, a sell-out crowd hailed the film’s release, washing down popcorn with beer and cocktails and uniting for a boisterous sing-along of God Bless America before the opening credits.
“This is way more fun than it would have been,” said Jim Kelley, who waited outside with his daughter Shannon. “This is almost dangerous, like we’re living life on the edge,” he joked.
Some venues showing The Interview were more likely to feature documentaries about North Korea than a low-brow comedy about it.
At the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, New Mexico, owned by Game Of Thrones author George RR Martin, the schedule also includes the Spanish art-house release Flamenco, the locally made The Twilight Angel and an Italian film festival. The Film Society of Lincoln Centre, which begins screening The Interview today, will soon be hosting a tribute to Force Majeure director Ruben Ostlund of Sweden and a documentary about the late Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The back story of The Interview has itself played out like a Hollywood satire in which a cartoonish farce distracts from some of the holiday season’s most prestigious films such as Selma, the drama about the 1965 civil rights march, Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of the best-selling Second World War story Unbroken and the all-star, big-screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods.
Security was light at many cinemas, with the occasional police officer on hand. The possibility of violence was taken more seriously by the movie industry than by the government. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying that there were no credible threats.
Meanwhile, Darrell Foxworth, a special agent for the FBI in San Diego, said the agency was sharing information with independent cinema owners showing The Interview out of “an abundance of caution” and to educate them about cyber-threats and what help the FBI could offer.
Kim Song, a North Korean diplomat to the United Nations, condemned the release, calling the movie an “unpardonable mockery of our sovereignty and dignity of our supreme leader”. But he said North Korea would probably limit its response to condemnation, with no “physical reaction”.
Decisions to show the film through the internet could open up companies to hacking. Xbox and PlayStation’s online gaming services were down last night but the cause was unclear. Meanwhile, YouTube and other Google products were not having any disruptions.
In Little Rock, members of an Arkansas family who say they otherwise would have never seen The Interview were among the first patrons at the Riverdale 10 cinema. Kay Trice and her husband drove an hour from Stuttgart, in the state, to see the film with their daughter and appreciated “the freedom to see it”.
“It should be shown in this country and somebody in North Korea should not have the right to scare us out of seeing this,” Mrs Trice said.
A few dozen people lined up early outside Tempe, Arizona’s Valley Art cinema, where tickets for all five showings yesterday had sold out. “There are a lot of people going crazy over (the controversy). It’s bigger than the movie,” said Omar Khiel, 20.
At the Cinema Village in Manhattan, the 10am screening was near capacity. Lawyer Derek Karpel, 34, said that “as many people as possible should go see it. In fact, the government should subsidise tickets to make that possible”.
But he was not about to call The Interview a national treasure. “No one should go in expecting it to be a serious commentary on politics,” he said. “But it’s fun. People should go.”