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Movie theater chains cave to threats against Sony Pictures comedy ‘The Interview’

Posted at 11:00 AM, Dec 17, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-17 18:57:27-05

(CNNMoney)– Most of the country’s largest theater chains have decided not to show Sony’s “The Interview” next week.

The decision follows a strange threat on Tuesday from anonymous hackers that people should avoid going to theaters where “The Interview” is playing.

The comedic film was scheduled to come out on Christmas Day. Sony (SNE) still does not plan to pull the film altogether, but the studio signaled on Tuesday that it wouldn’t object if theaters decide not to show the film.

And on Wednesday many of the major theater owners did just that. Some of them, however, indicated they might show the film eventually.

According to sources with direct knowledge with the situation and statements by some of the companies, among the top chains that have decided to drop the movie are Regal (RGC),Cinemark (CNK), and Carmike Cinemas (CKEC).

Several smaller chains, including Bow Tie Cinemas and Southern, have decided to do the same thing.

Others are apparently still deciding. There was conflicting information on Wednesday afternoon about AMC Entertainment — some sources said AMC had yanked the film from its screens, but others said the theater operator hadn’t made a final decision.

The famed ArcLight Theatre in Hollywood has not decided yet, either, according to a corporate representative. Earlier, sources at Sony said ArcLight had indeed pulled the film.

The confused information reflected the conundrum that Sony and the theater owners were in.

Most of the theater owners declined to comment publicly. But Bow Tie said in a statementthat it was “saddened and angered” by the threats against the film.

“It is our mission to ensure the safety and comfort of our guests and employees,” it said.

Another chain, Cineplex, which is based in Canada, also confirmed that it would postpone its showing of the film.

“Cineplex takes seriously its commitment to the freedom of artistic expression, but we want to reassure our guests and staff that their safety and security is our number one priority,” the company said. “We look forward to a time when this situation is resolved and those responsible are apprehended.”

“The Interview” became controversial because its plot involves the attempted assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Sony Pictures has been devastated by a cyberattack that appears motivated by anger over the film.

The film’s Los Angeles premiere went off without a hitch last week, but the New York premiere planned for Thursday was called off after the new threat on Tuesday.

The threat, which invoked the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, received widespread press attention.

Concerns about upholding freedom of artistic expression were countered by fears that families would heed the hackers’ warning and bypass the box office for the remainder of the holiday season.

“The possibility that people will avoid theaters altogether is the problem,” the person said. In other words, it’s not just “The Interview” that could be hurt, it’s other Christmas releases like Disney’ (DIS)”Into The Woods” and Universal’s “Unbroken.”

The people insisted on anonymity because Sony has not commented publicly on the matter.

Furthermore, according to The Hollywood Reporter, theaters were “wary of becoming liable if they show the movie and any violence occurs.”

To many observers, however, that sounded like a far-fetched scenario.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said on CNN’s “New Day” that “this is essentially a heckler’s veto” of the film.

While Sony and U.S. government officials have not explicitly accused North Korea of being behind the hacking attacks, he said this seems to be “a foreign power engaging in a cyber-attack against a private actor, a private company, in order to squelch freedom of expression.”

The FBI is investigating the hack, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday that “there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States.”

All the attention is causing some people to pledge to see the film.

“I am not going to let a terrorist threat shut down freedom of speech. I am going to The Interview,” screenwriter and director Judd Apatow wrote on Twitter Tuesday night.