LOS ANGELES — Amid a swell of controversy, backlash, confusion and threats, Sony Pictures broadly released "The Interview" online Wednesday — an unprecedented counterstroke against the hackers who spoiled the Christmas opening of the comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"It has always been Sony's intention to have a national platform on which to release this film," Sony Pictures chair and CEO Michael Lynton said in a statement. "We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day, and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release."
"The Interview" became available on a variety of digital platforms Wednesday afternoon, including Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft's Xbox Video and a separate Sony website, a day after Sony and independent theaters agreed to release it in over 300 venues on Christmas. The wide digital release is the culmination of a set of deals that have been in the works since the major theater chains last week dropped the movie that was to have opened on up to 3,000 screens.
Seth Rogen, who stars in the film he co-directed with Evan Goldberg, cheered the decision.
"I need to say that a comedy is best viewed in a theater full of people, so if you can, I'd watch it like that. Or call some friends over," he tweeted.
A Sony executive close to the matter said that there is concern over whether the company will recoup the $40 million cost of the film and the millions more spent on marketing, but that affordability and wide access were their main priorities. The executive also said more providers could sign on in the coming days and weeks and the option is still there for more theaters to show the film down the line. The executive said it remained an option for the major theater chains to show the film, and that Sony was working to repair the symbiotic relationship that has eroded in recent days.
Decisions by Google and Microsoft to show the movie could open their sites to hacking. Microsoft reported technical problems with its Xbox sign-in system Wednesday, though it wasn't known whether it was the result of hacking. Microsoft declined to comment.
Sony's initial decision not to release the film was widely criticized, with President Barack Obama one of the harshest critics.
U.S. officials have blamed North Korea for the hacking, and White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama welcomed the latest development.
"As the president made clear on Friday, we do not live in a country where a foreign dictator can start imposing censorship here in the United States. With today's announcements, people can now make their own choices about the film, and that's how it should be," Schultz said.
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 Kim said North Korea will likely limit its response to condemnation, with no "physical reaction."
Among the early viewers was 11-year-old Marco Squitieri of Washington, D.C. Squitieri had wanted to see "The Interview" since seeing a preview earlier this year and had followed the news about Sony pulling the movie, then permitting its release. Squitieri's family purchased "The Interview" from Xbox for $14.99.
"It's pretty funny," Squitieri told The Associated Press, laughing as he praised the chemistry of Rogen and Franco and adding that he could understand why the North Korean government wouldn't like it. "They make fun of North Korea a lot."
Amy Hurley, an executive assistant who lives in Detroit, paid $5.99 to rent the movie on YouTube Movies and was disappointed. A fan of Rogen and Franco, she found Franco's character "way over the top" and thought the jokes "were old and kept going on and on."
"It was kind of a mess overall," said Hurley, 42. "I was a little bummed because I was looking forward to seeing it."
The move to make the film available for rental and purchase before its theatrical release had never before been done with a mainstream film. Studios have released smaller indie and foreign movies simultaneously in theaters and on digital platforms, but analysts said the situation with "The Interview" left Sony little choice.
"This isn't being done because Sony wants to do it regularly, but rather out of necessity prompted by the exhibitor boycott," said Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.
"Sony is in a delicate situation here since they normally never go this route with a major film, but theater chains also know this is a unique back-against-the-wall situation," added Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com.
While Pandya said that interest would likely wane in January, for now, the curiosity and enthusiasm is still palpable. Tyler Pulsifer, manager of the Hartford Spotlight Theaters in Hartford, Connecticut, said he had received 32 calls from people interested in seeing "The Interview" during the first 90 minutes the theater was open on Christmas Eve.
"I'd be willing to bet we're going to sell out," Pulsifer said. The theater has four showings on Christmas, and five each for Friday and Saturday nights.
"People want to see it because they've been told not to," he said.
For some, the decision to show the film hasn't been the smoothest process. Stephanie Putnam, assistant manager of the Greendale Cinema in Lawrence, Indiana, still isn't sure whether her theater will be able to show the movie on Christmas — it hasn't received it from the distributor yet. As a result, tickets haven't been on sale, but there have been several calls from customers who have expressed interested in seeing it.
Releasing "The Interview" could potentially cause a response from the hackers, who called themselves the Guardians of Peace. There have been none of the embarrassing data leaks of Sony emails since the movie's release was delayed. In a message last week to the studio, the hackers said Sony's data would be safe so long as the film was never distributed.
Lynton said the release represented the company's commitment to free speech.
"While we couldn't have predicted the road this movie traveled to get to this moment, I'm proud our fight was not for nothing and that cyber criminals were not able to silence us," he said.
Frazier Moore, David Bauder and Hillel Italie in New York, Mae Anderson in Atlanta, Michael Liedtke in San Francisco, Josh Lederman in Honolulu and Cara Anna at the United Nations contributed to this story.