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President Obama Slams Sony for Canceling "The Interview"; Sony Blames Theater Owners (Updated)

Sony "made a mistake" in canceling screenings of "The Interview," the president says.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Obama, speaking at his year-end presser, said it was a mistake for Sony Pictures Entertainment to cancel screenings of “The Interview” after it received threats of violence, saying it could lead to an era of self-censorship in Hollywood.

“We cannot have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States,” the president said, while also acknowledging he was sympathetic to Sony’s circumstances.

In the long term, he said, the move could have chilling effects on the country’s freedom of expression. “Imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended,” he said.

In remarks made to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, studio chief executive Michael Lynton said the situation was out of their control.

“The president, the press and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened,” he said in an interview with the network. “We do not own movie theaters. We cannot determine whether or not a movie will be played in movie theaters.”

Lynton added Sony still wants to find a way to distribute the film, but couldn’t find an online service that would be willing out of concerns it may also be attacked. “There has not been one major VOD distributor, one major e-commerce site step forward and say they would distribute this to us,” he said, adding, “we don’t have that direct interface with the American public so we need to go through an intermediary to do that.”

Sony does own its own streaming service called Crackle, which it acquired in 2006. It is also able to distribute the film on its PlayStation Store, which sells and rents movies through its game consoles and devices. It wasn’t clear from the CNN interview if Sony is considering using its own distribution platform.

Crackle referred inquiries to Sony Pictures, which has yet to respond to a question regarding the service. A PlayStation spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.

Industry observers said that Netflix and YouTube would be possible candidates to help Sony release “The Interview” online. “We are approached on virtually every unconventional release by the networks and studios and, as a matter of course, don’t discuss publicly the pitches, concepts or ideas that come our way,” Netflix rep Jonathan Friedland said in an e-mailed statement. YouTube reps have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has determined the North Korean government ordered the malicious attack, resulting in the disclosure of personal information, private emails and confidential business documents that culminated in threats of violence.

The president said there’s “no indication that North Korea was working in conjunction with any other country,” in the attack, contradicting earlier reports the reclusive nation may have worked with China in the incursion.

Sony canceled its Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy about a fictional CIA plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, after the nation’s largest theater owners elected not to show the film, citing concerns for the safety of employees and patrons.

“I wish they had spoken to me first,” Obama said of Sony. “I would have told them, do not get into a pattern where you’ll be intimidated by these attacks.”

Lynton told CNN: “We definitely spoke to a senior adviser about the situation. Did we speak to the president himself …? The White House was definitely aware of the situation.”

The White House, which has closely monitored the incident, has been contemplating a “proportional response,” but the president declined to explain what that would involve.

Updated with Sony’s response to the president and its efforts to find online distribution.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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