LOS ANGELES - "The Interview" was never supposed to be a paradigm-shifting film. But unusual doesn't even begin to describe the series of events that transpired over the past few weeks, culminating in the truly unprecedented move by a major studio to release a film in theaters and on digital platforms simultaneously.
Sony is in uncharted waters now with the film, which earned $1.04 million from 331 locations on Thursday, according to studio estimates, in addition to the untold VOD grosses.
"Considering the incredibly challenging circumstances, we are extremely grateful to the people all over the country who came out to experience "The Interview" on the first day of its unconventional release," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Pictures in a statement.
For a film that would have just come and gone in the usual 3,000 theaters without much fanfare, the $40 million comedy has now become an accidental case study in the world of day-and-date releases, in which titles are available both in theaters and for digital rental simultaneously. The industry is watching closely to see just where audiences will choose to place their dollars in the coming days and weeks. The big question is whether this strategy could be viable for major releases in the future.
While a $3,142 per-theater average and sold-out showings when audiences had the option to watch the film from the comfort of their own homes is nothing to scoff at, analysts agree that it probably doesn't signal the beginning of a significant change in how Hollywood does business.
Day-and-date releases are nothing new, for one. Independent distributors have embraced this strategy for years. But those are generally small films with even smaller budgets - ones that can't afford a more traditional, widespread marketing campaign.
For the major studios, it's never really been an option.
Theater chains depend on exclusive first-run content to survive. If audiences were given the choice to just rent anything from a mid-budget comedy to a $200 million blockbuster on the day of its release, theaters would undoubtedly suffer.
"The last thing the major theater chains want is for this kind of strategy to be employed by the major studios on a more frequent basis," said BoxOfficeGuru.com editor Gitesh Pandya. Earlier this year, Warner Bros. experimented with an unconventional day-and-date release for "Veronica Mars." Theater chains Regal and Cinemark declined to screen the film because of its online availability. The film ended up showing on 270 screens, most of which were AMC.
"The relationship between big studios and exhibitors is so monumental that they're not going to start changing things around anytime soon. Possibly down the road, little by little. But the old-school model of putting your major releases in 3,000 theaters nationwide will stay intact for the time being," Pandya said.
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for box office tracker Rentrak, agreed. "Theatrical is the engine that drives everything else. I don't think this is a sudden gateway to studios wanting to release films this way," he said.
Also, "The Interview" is an imperfect case. Patriotism, free speech, pure curiosity and even the desire to be part of the nationwide conversation have all played in to why audiences flocked to theaters on Christmas Day to see the movie.
"Awareness is through the roof," Dergarabedian said. "People went out to the theaters and made an event out of it. They're going to be talking about this for a long time. That's a very interesting and unusual phenomenon that's usually reserved for films like 'The Hobbit' or 'Star Wars.' "
Added Pandya: "Audiences who would otherwise never go to see a Seth Rogen movie were hearing about it and decided to come out to see what all the fuss is about."
Long-term prospects for "The Interview" at the box office remain a mystery. Pandya believes that theatrical grosses will be frontloaded, and that's at least partially attributable to the quality of the film.
"The movie is mediocre," he said. "If it were a brilliant film, the word of mouth would carry it week to week." He predicts a dramatic drop off when the holidays end.
Also, the public may never know how the movie fared on the digital platforms. Smaller distributors like Radius-TWC, who released "Snowpiercer" on demand while it was still in theaters, have started pulling back the veil on VOD financials, but it's unlikely that Sony will ever give the public a peek into "The Interview's" success or failure online.
"I'm sure they're not that impressive. For studios, the biggest part of reporting box office is to brag," Pandya said. "If the numbers aren't brag-worthy, they're probably going to keep it in their own files."
"The Interview" might now forever be in the history books, but it probably won't change the way audiences see new movies. For the big movies, theatrical will always come first, Dergarabedian said.
"It's a system that works and audiences like it," he said.