NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The combined theatrical and online sales of Sony's (SNE) lightning rod of a comedy film The Interview must have been satisfying to the Hollywood studio despite all the headaches and embarrassment caused by the massive hacking of the company's computer network.
After being made available for online streaming and purchase at several Web sites, The Interview, a satirical romp about an attempted assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, grossed an estimated $2.8 million over the four-day Christmas weekend at the 331 independent U.S. movie theaters showing it, Sony said on Monday. The comedy also grossed more than $15 million online in the first four days it was available, the company said.
"These are extremely impressive numbers and prove that when you give the people what they want, particularly a movie that is the object of so much news and controversy, they will line up in the virtual as well as the physical world to see it," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.
It was a "truly unique situation," he said. But it's "unlikely to signal a sea change in the way that big budget studio movies are released," he said.
The Interview was made available online across the U.S. at 1 p.m. EST on Christmas Eve as a high-definition rental on Google (GOOG) Play, YouTube Movies, the Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox Video service and the dedicated Web site www.seetheinterview.com. The price was set at $5.99. The film was also made available for purchase in HD at $14.99. Online distribution was expanded to Canada through Google Play, YouTube Movies and Xbox Video starting later that afternoon.
Through Saturday, The Interview was rented or purchased online more than 2 million times across all the platforms, said Sony. The movie "already ranks" as Sony Pictures' top online film of all time, the company said.
The decision by Apple (AAPL) to add The Interview to its iTunes service on Sunday in HD and standard definition at the same pricing "will provide additional revenues and likely drew folks who may have been first time users" to that service, said Dergarabedian.
Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on why it decided to wait a few days before making the movie available.
The online numbers for the movie "directly reflect the massive demand" for The Interview that was "most certainly created by the dominance that the film has enjoyed via all of the major news outlets and made it 'must see' viewing for millions of people," said Dergarabedian.
The film's estimated $2.8 million four-day theatrical gross included more than $1 million Thursday, about $735,000 Friday, $615,000 Saturday and $461,000 Sunday, said Sony. The movie's first-day theatrical performance on Christmas Day was "solid" considering its availability via the streaming services a day earlier, said Dergarabedian.
It was "hard to say how it might have performed had it been released in 10 times the number of theaters," as Sony had originally planned, but "certainly" something more than $20 million "might have been in the cards," he said. "With many sellout showings" being reported for the movie at theaters and "considering the anecdotes about audience enthusiasm, I think it's safe to say given the extraordinary circumstances, that you could call it a hit," he said.
"Considering the incredibly challenging circumstances," Sony was "extremely grateful" to moviegoers who went out to see the movie at theaters on the first day of its "unconventional" release, Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution at Sony Pictures, had said in a statement. The limited release included fewer than 10% of the number of theaters originally planned, he said.
It was "tough to speculate" on how the Xbox Live service outage over the holiday may have hurt streaming of The Interview, said Dergarabedian. But the outage "may have caused some folks to go for the brick-and-mortar theater and that communal experience which is very key to the enjoyment of comedies in particular," he said.
Microsoft declined to comment on the cause of the outage. The hacker group Lizard Squad claimed responsibility online for that outage, as well as one that shut down Sony's PlayStation Network for an even longer period over the long holiday weekend.