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Independent theaters rescued The Interview. But Sony's online release could squeeze them out.

The marquee of the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta shows off screenings of The Interview.
The marquee of the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta shows off screenings of The Interview.
Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

The irony of Sony's triumphant online release of The Interview — which proved audiences are willing to at least sample a major film online to the tune of $15 million — is that it may be a death knell for the independent theater owners who convinced Sony to release The Interview in the first place.

As Deadline reported in the wake of Sony's reversal of its original decision to cancel the film's release, one of the major factors in bringing the film to theaters was a petition signed by several independent theater owners, including Tim League of Texas's influential Alamo Drafthouse chain. Others involved in the conversation (via email) included George R.R. Martin, author of the novels Game of Thrones is based on and owner of a small theater in Santa Fe, N.M.

But what Sony ultimately did was release The Interview both in small theaters and online. And what happened next showed how the new economics of movies might start squeezing out the exhibitors most willing to take risks on showing films that truly need word of mouth and theatrical support.

Compared to that $15 million, the box office totals for The Interview from indie theaters only amounted to $2.8 million over the long Christmas weekend. That averages out to $8,580 per location, which isn't bad, but pales in comparison to several other releases. Martin Luther King, Jr., biopic Selma, for instance, pulled in over $47,000 in per-screen average over the weekend, from just 19 locations.

Yes, theater owners get a cut of box office receipts, but the true money comes from concessions. That means just getting people in the door. Given the most recent average movie ticket price of $8.08, that would work out to theaters selling around 1,061 tickets to Interview over that long weekend, while Selma would have played to over 5,800 patrons, on average. Thus, it sold much more popcorn for the small, mostly independent theaters showing it.

To a very real degree, Sony has undercut those theater owners. The $5.99 price to rent The Interview for two days is significantly cheaper than the average movie ticket and while the $14.99 cost to own is higher, it also guarantees you can watch the movie over and over again, if you are a Seth Rogen and James Franco superfan.

This is good for consumers, particularly those who prefer the at-home experience to the theatrical one (though, in another irony, it's the indie theaters who are also doing the most work to shut down things like texting and talking during screenings). And there's some PR value to a chain like Alamo having The Interview and seeming like it's striking a blow for free speech, to be sure.

So long as there's a significant audience that prefers the theatrical experience, savvy exhibitors like League will be fine. But the kinds of films most indie theaters show — smaller-scale, aimed at adults — are also the kinds of films that make the easiest transition to your home theater system.

Thus, it's not hard to look at numbers like those from The Interview and the sci-fi epic Snowpiercer (another film that relied on independent theaters just to stay afloat), which doubled its theatrical box office in on-demand box office earlier this year, and not wonder, just a little bit, if the new economics of movies are going to start squeezing out the exhibitors most willing to take risks on showing films that truly need word of mouth and theatrical support. We're not there yet, but The Interview suggests we're closer than expected.

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