LOS ANGELES » Carolers dressed in Dickensian costumes sang "Silent Night" at 11:45 p.m. on Wednesday here, as a woman with a strip of shiny gold garland tied around her head handed out hot cider.
"I could think of no place better to be on Christmas Eve than here, with like-minded people, coming together for something we strongly believe in," said Julia Paredes, a bookstore manager.
This was not a midnight Mass. It was one of the first screenings of Sony’s "The Interview," which improbably became a symbol of free speech in the last week as hackers who attacked the studio first got the movie withdrawn from distribution, then, after a groundswell of support for releasing it that reached the White House, watched it open after all.
As moviegoers lined up at the 331 scrappy, independently owned theaters that played "The Interview" on Christmas, it was obvious that many, like Paredes, 28, were there to make a political stand. They turned out in red, white and blue attire. At one theater in California, a ticket taker dressed up as "Uncle Sam-ty Claus." A manager at Cinema Village in Manhattan introduced the film by reciting "America," also known as "My Country ‘Tis of Thee."
The number of tickets sold was not immediately available. Sony said only that it would disclose results on Friday. The studio similarly declined to report sales figures or estimates for online rentals and sales. But there were indications of strong interest: Many theaters reported sellouts, and "The Interview" was listed as the No. 1 seller on YouTube Movies and the Google Play store on Thursday morning.
The small theaters playing the film – art houses that only rarely get such a hot ticket – appeared to be doing well while doing good. Some theaters started selling souvenir soft drink cups shaped like rockets for a $6 premium over the standard drink price. Individual tickets in spots ran as high as $24.
"It’s been gangbusters," said Christian Parkes, chief brand officer of Alamo Drafthouse, which showed "The Interview" in 19 theaters across multiple states. "Christmas Day is sold out across the chain."
Many of the theaters playing "The Interview" did not have showtimes until midday in their various time zones. But the Cinefamily Theater – a 174-seat cinematheque in California still identified on its purple neon marquee as the Silent Movie Theater – held a 12:30 a.m. screening, which is the one Paredes drove an hour from her home in Santa Ana, California, to attend.
As the lights came down in the 72-year-old theater, two men appeared with microphones to make an introduction: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. They directed "The Interview," a raunchy comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong Un. Rogen, who also stars in the film, gave a profanity-laced warm-up.
"We live near here," Rogen said. "We just wanted to say thank you."
"The Interview" has received mixed-to-negative reviews. ("A goofy, strenuously naughty, hit-and-miss farce," wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times.) But curiosity about the controversy surrounding the film at least in some instances trumped taste.
"I’m just here for the hype," said Pam Silverthorn, 49, a defense contractor, who turned out for a matinee at Williamsburg Cinemas in New York City.
Noel Rodriguez, 21, made a first-time visit to the Regency theater in Commerce, California, in part to participate in an unusual chapter of Hollywood history. "I just wanted to be able to say I saw it," he said.
Sony made its initial theatrical retreat after a threat – traced by the FBI to the North Korean government – of 9/11-style violence against theaters that showed the film. The smaller theaters Sony eventually lined up to present it promised heightened security. Weezie Melancon, president of the Crest Theater in Los Angeles, said she had been in contact with the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department, both of which had promised an extra presence. Officers huddled with a ticket taker shortly before showtime.
Noah Elgart, 28, the manager at Williamsburg Cinemas, said his staff would be checking bags as a precaution but did not expect any problems despite the threats against the film.
Toby Leonard, programming director at the restored Belcourt Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, said he had been in touch with a local representative for the FBI and was told "in so many words that there really isn’t much of a credible threat here." Leonard said he also checked with the Belcourt’s insurance company, which responded "by asking if they could buy a block of tickets."
In a rare move, Sony made "The Interview" available for rental or sale online Wednesday. Among the Internet services that offered it were the Google Play store, Google’s YouTube and Microsoft’s Xbox Video. Sony began showing the film on a website of its own.
On Wednesday night, Sony’s hastily assembled online release of "The Interview" hit bumps. Some early would-be viewers could not load or pay for the film on Sony’s SeeTheInterview.com site, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Separately, users of Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox Live game services – in an episode apparently unrelated to the film – complained of service problems.
In addition, digital pirates were already offering "The Interview" online. One link had been downloaded more than 20,000 times as of Thursday morning. Although Sony has not yet made "The Interview" available overseas, it was also widely available for streaming on Chinese video-sharing sites, with an unofficial version with English and Chinese subtitles. The Chinese title for that version of the film translated as "Assassinate Kim Jong Un."
But gratitude and patriotism ruled the day in theaters.
"The fact that they’re showing this movie shows that America still has a backbone regardless of the critics," said Jay Killion, a golf pro who caught a screening at Tower City Cinemas in Cleveland.
At Alamo Drafthouse, screenings began with a recorded video message of thanks from Rogen to members of the Art House Convergence, an alliance of small theaters that was instrumental in reviving the film.
"Thank you, America," Rogen added in the recording, to cheers from one audience at Alamo’s Lubbock, Texas, location.