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Sony Should Send ‘The Interview’ Straight To Video On Demand

UPDATE (Dec. 17, 8:47 p.m.): A spokesperson for Sony told Variety that Sony doesn’t have plans to release “The Interview” on DVD or video on demand.

 

Sony announced Wednesday that it’s canceling the Christmas release of “The Interview,” the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy that appears to have prompted hackers to take aim at the studio. (The New York Times is reporting that “American intelligence officials have concluded that the North Korean government was ‘centrally involved’ ” in the hacking.) Sony’s move is a result of threats against theaters showing the movie, which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and the theaters’ subsequent reluctance to screen the film.

Sony’s decision is going to prompt a whole lot of second guessing: Should Sony and the theaters have given into the threats? What does the cancellation mean for the studio? What’s the role of controversial art in society? Those are matters of opinion, but I’m a man of data. Which is why I’d love to see Sony Pictures release the film directly to video on demand (VOD).

VOD is sometimes hailed as the entertainment industry’s financial savior. But studios are notoriously risk-averse. We see it when it comes to casting, when it comes to what gets green-lit and what gets renewed for a sequel. So nobody’s been willing to release a major, heavily advertised motion picture straight to VOD without hitting theaters first.

As a result, we really don’t have any data about the financial possibilities of VOD. (I’m talking specifically about the kind of video on-demand where you pay iTunes or your cable company to watch a movie, rather than streaming services like Netflix or Hulu.)

The closest thing we have to data on VOD’s potential is “Snowpiercer,” the 2014 sci-fi movie/class parable that the Weinstein Co. made available for digital purchase two weeks after its theatrical release. The results were really interesting. The film made $3.8 million in its first two weeks on VOD, compared to $3.9 million over its first five weeks in theaters, according to Variety’s reporting.

That’s a data point, but it’s not enough to draw any conclusions. We don’t have multiple instances of studios seriously kicking the tires of VOD for major theatrical releases. And that’s the kind of data that — hypothetically, if VOD is really worth the hype — could potentially persuade studios to look into the distribution medium as their first avenue of release.

As I see it, Sony has three main options:

  • Make “The Interview” the new “The Day The Clown Cried” — a movie that never sees the light of day.
  • Hold “The Interview” for months, releasing it once the threats fade, hopefully without prompting new ones.
  • Send “The Interview” to VOD to try to make something back on it, while at the same time gathering data that the rest of the industry is too scared to collect itself. That could establish Sony as a leader in VOD among the major studios.

From a strictly data perspective, I’d like to see them go with Option 3.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.

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