What’s next for Sony after pulling the plug on ‘The Interview’?

December 18, 2014, 1:38 AM UTC
James Franco;Seth Rogen
Sook (Diana Bang) with Aaron (Seth Rogen) and Dave (James Franco) in Columbia Pictures' THE INTERVIEW.
Photograph by Ed Araquel — Columbia Pictures

Seth Rogen, James Franco, and The Interview will not be coming to a theater near you. Not anytime soon, anyway.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s decision on Wednesday to cancel the comedy film’s planned opening represents just the latest in a series of dramatic events that started a few weeks ago when hackers breached the studio’s computer system. It was soon followed by those apparently responsible releasing Sony’s internal e-mails and the nation’s largest movie theater owners deciding against showing the movie.

On Tuesday, a note purportedly written by Guardians of Peace, the hackers who claimed to be behind last month’s cyber attack, suggested a possible series of violent attacks at any cinema screening The Interview — a Sony comedy that portrays an assassination plot against a fictional version of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (U.S. government officials said Wednesday that North Korea was likely behind the cyber attack, although the country has denied any involvement.)

Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Carmike Cinemas and Cineplex Entertainment all confirmed on Wednesday that they were postponing the release of the film due to the threat, while Cinemark reportedly made a similar decision. Those companies are the country’s five largest movie theater operators and they control more than 20,000 screens across the U.S. and Canada.

Faced with the likelihood that The Interview would find itself locked out of a large chunk of the country’s theaters when it made its Christmas debut next week, Sony opted to scrap the theatrical release altogether. “We are deeply saddened by this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees and the American public,” Sony said in a statement. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

So, where does that leave Sony?

The Interview reportedly cost the company more than $40 million to make, including $8.4 million to Rogen, who co-wrote and stars in the film, and another $6.5 million for Franco, the film’s other leading star. (Their salaries were among the reams of data leaked in the wake of the hack.) Of course, that figure doesn’t even include tens of millions of dollars the company would have earmarked for promoting the film — some of which it will likely save now.

If Sony opts to cancel the release of The Interview altogether — rather than postpone it — then the company will obviously have a difficult time recouping its expenses. Variety reported today that Sony is considering circumventing theaters altogether and giving the film a premium video-on-demand release, which would give Sony a chance to experiment with a new release method without fear of angering the movie theater operators that have already passed on The Interview.

It is difficult to say how much money Sony could make by selling The Interview on demand directly to viewers’ homes, even with the added (though not necessarily welcome) buzz around the movie as a result of the hack and threats. Some recent films have been made available on-demand – garnering some success – while they are still in theaters. Earlier this year, the critically-acclaimed dystopian action flick Snowpiercer made more through on-demand in its first two months than it did in a limited theater-run. But the film still only pulled in $6.5 million on-demand in that time and another $4.5 million in theaters, according to Deadline.

The Interview was expected to bring in far more than $11 million, though. Box Office Mojo predicted gross ticket sales of around $90 million for the movie. That’s compared with past Rogen-Franco comedies like 2013’s This is the End, which pulled in $100 million, and 2008’s Pineapple Express, which made about $87 million.

A Sony Pictures spokesman issued this additional statement to Fortune: “Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film.”

Now, Sony Pictures is left with just one major release to bolster its holiday movie season: the remake of the musical Annie, which hits theaters this week. So far, Sony Pictures’ films have pulled in $129 million during the holiday season — a period that generally accounts for more than 20% of Hollywood’s annual ticket sales — compared to $322 million during last year’s holidays. The Interview’s expected ticket sales certainly would have helped Sony make up some of that ground.

For the full year, Sony Pictures’ gross sales are up about 11.5%, which actually makes it one of the few major studios to post a year-to-year gain in 2014. The movie industry in general has seen sales to this point decline 5.5% from 2013 and Hollywood is counting on a successful holiday movie season to reach at least $10 billion in total gross for the year — a mark the industry has met every year since 2008. Box Office Mojo’s latest numbers show the industry more than $300 million away from that goal with just a few weeks left before January, which means The Interview‘s lost ticket sales could be a blow to more than just Sony.