Filmism.net Dispatch February 2, 2015

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This hacking of Sony, then. Even more to the point, exactly what it did to movie marketing in late 2014. Yes, there have been a lot of joking references on Twitter about Sony staging the whole thing, but I do wonder if the company responded much more cleverly to it than any of us realise.

In a parallel universe this fairly inane comedy at the centre of the whole mess, The Interview, would have made a few million and then been forgotten. Instead it ended up not just one of the most talked about movies of the year, it became the focal point for arguments and rants about free speech and politics. No less than Barack Obama weighed in.

If you ask me there's one thing we can be absolutely sure of. Sony looked at every development in the story with an eye on how to advance the company's agenda of selling movies. In this day and age when studios give money to production companies and producers to buy movies in far more than they make them under their own rooves, selling movies is an even more important corporate imperative than making them.

From embarrassing emails between studio co-chairwoman Amy Pascal and uber-producer Scott Rudin to theatre owners deciding not to show The Interview, everything would have been filtered through the lens of generating publicity for the movie.

When the badly-spelled messages from the Guardians of Peace (always sounded like they watched their The Avengers DVD too many times to me) contained vague threats against public safety, one movie theatre chain after another pulled The Interview from their schedules.

Then the real action started. Digital outlets like YouTube and XBox started entering into agreements to show the movie instead. Netflix started talking about doing the same soon after.

Then the media started talking about Sony's own download site, Kernel (although not for the right reasons after the site was apparently slow to start).

New developments started coming thick and fast on what felt like an hourly basis. Next up it was revealed that a couple of theatres would release the film after all.

After launch, sales on Google Play and YouTube were brisk, eventually climbing to the top of many digital charts. Initial box office from the theatrical release was a little over $1m, a sum any distributor would consider paltry considering the buzz the hack had generated about the movie and the budget of $44m (revealed thanks to the hackers).

But not long after the online release, it was reported The Interview had become Sony's biggest digital release ever, hoovering up a blistering total of $15m online. Seemingly buoyed by such a response, Sony broadened the release strategy to everyone from the Playstation Network to pay TV providers. At the end of the first week of January it was reported to be up to $31m. The latest news is that the VOD total was around $40m.

So where does all this leave us? Many theatre owners were put out, especially after they thought Sony Chairman Michael Lynton's response to Barack Obama blamed them for the whole debacle.

First, Sony had a bona fide movie phenomenon on its hands. True, it's not a financial hit at this stage, and if you believe this story, it's still a ways away from profitability. But let's not forget that attention is the real currency in Hollywood, as I explored here.

And Sony's managed all this through bypassing the major theatre chains and using the glare of the media spotlight to make sure everyone knew about a wide scale digital release through several platforms few people associate with legitimate movie releases, like YouTube.

The media glare also shone a light on the name Kernel, Sony's digital distribution 'division', which enjoyed the kind of awareness a thousand bland press releases would never raise.

Video on Demand has been steadily establishing itself as a minor player in movie distribution over the last three or four years. Was this an effort to bring it into the blockbuster leagues? Theatre chains fighting tightening release windows have always been the biggest stumbling blocks in the VOD strategies of studios. Maybe Sony was hoping The Interview would be the first big nose-thumb to theatres that it doesn't need them anymore?

Sony has been on a stated mission to cut costs for the last few years. Is losing half the profit on a movie to theatre owners one of the costs they're trying to cut? Few new technologies go mainstream without a lot of spilled blood, financial fallout or lawsuits. Might this be the true arrival of digital movie distribution?

Quick, a celebrity interview before this Weyland Yutani T-shirt starts to morph into a finely cut executive suit. I talked to the ever-charming Bradley Cooper for American Sniper (before all the political kerfuffle really arose).

I also saw the new comic book film spy satire Kingsman: The Secret Service, which had enough laughs to keep you going despite being as finely crafted as a bull in a crockery shop.

The critics got it right about the irascible Blackhat, the disappointingly bland new film by Michael Mann, but they got it completely wrong about bloody, cool Arnie actioner Sabotage.

But one movie I urge you to go to the effort of seeing or renting is Gaspar Noe's exquisitely bonkers, deeply immersive and uniquely crafted Enter The Void. Don't worry, it doesn't have anything as harrowing as the 10 minute rape scene from Irreversible, but you've never seen anything like it.

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