The Interview made just over $1 million at the box office Thursday, for a per-screen average of $3,142 from its 331 theaters. Assuming normal box office erosion, it will likely make it to $3 million in traditional ticket sales by the end of Christmas weekend.
At first blush, that number seems pretty good. Making $1 million in a single day, on so few screens, is definitely an accomplishment. And the per-screen average isn't bad either. The film finished 15th in overall sales on the day, but it finishes seventh in per-screen average, with three of the films coming in ahead of it — Selma, American Sniper, and the Indian import PK — playing on fewer screens. (Releasing a film to a handful of theaters first, to build excitement and hopefully reap high box office from just those theaters, is a time-honored strategy for Oscar contenders like Selma and American Sniper.)
You also have to consider that Sony has simultaneously released the film to Video On Demand, where it has been among the top sellers for YouTube and Google Play. Of course, we don't get traditional box office figures for those sellers, just as we rarely get hard numbers for DVD sales. So we can't know if The Interview has sold 1 million downloads or one dozen.
The embattled film was pulled from release after major theater chains refused to show it in the wake of terrorist threats directed against it by the hackers who broke into the computer system of Sony Pictures, the film's studio. Sony reversed course on Tuesday, releasing the film to independent theaters, most notably Texas's small Alamo Drafthouse chain.
The question, then, is if the $1 million number is good or disappointing. The film cost $44 million to make, and no matter how good the VOD numbers are, it seems highly unlikely to make back its budget (to say nothing of marketing). Sony will still take a substantial write-off on the film.
Plus, films in limited release have pulled much, much better per-screen averages, even this year. The Grand Budapest Hotel, for instance, made over $55,000 per theater in its opening weekend, from just 66 theaters. Its opening weekend total was $3.6 million, a number The Interview probably has no hope of hitting. From that point of view, the number is disappointing.
But from another point of view, that $1 million is pretty good, all things considered. Yes, hackers, presumably backed by North Korea, gave the film a surprising amount of publicity, that could have translated into stealth marketing.
But it's also important to note that the film was already entering a crowded marketplace where it seemed likely to play also-ran to a bunch of far more high-profile openings, like war film Unbroken and musical adaptation Into the Woods, both of which made over $15 million yesterday. Even if that $1 million number is a little low, the movie's return from the dead was so last minute that it was in the upper realm of numbers it could reasonably hope to obtain. Now the question is if the film will have any legs going forward.