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Pickford Film Center plays a role in historic commotion over ‘The Interview’

Along with some 300 other independent movie theaters across the country, Pickford Film Center scrambled to show “The Interview” after major theater chains canceled their bookings in the wake of threats of violence against anyone who showed the movie.

“It was an extremely unusual situation,” said Susie Purves, Pickford’s executive director.

That’s putting it mildly.

The comedy presents James Franco as Dave Skylark, the dense host of a trashy TV talk program. Skylark scores a rare interview with Kim Jong-un, the reclusive, despotic (and, in real life, very much alive) ruler of North Korea, who, in the movie, happens to be a fan of Skylark’s show.

Skylark and his producer, Aaron Rapoport, played by Seth Rogen, agree to conduct the interview on Kim’s choreographed terms, but before they fly to North Korea they also agree to the CIA’s request to assassinate Kim.

Kim (spoiler alert) is blown to pieces at the end of the film, which, by all accounts, made the real Kim furious. Then someone hacked Sony Pictures Entertainment, the movie’s maker, and threatened 9/11-type violence against anyone who showed the movie. The FBI has accused North Korea of the hacking, but some experts question whether a disgruntled Sony employee, or someone else, might be the culprit.

Regardless, major movie chains backed away from showing “The Interview,” even though the threat of violence was deemed a paper tiger. That’s when Pickford and other art houses stepped forward.

“Art houses, in a way, exist to take on artistic risk,” Purves said. “We show the films that don’t play at corporate cinemas; films that are made for the sake of art, not necessarily for the box office. We are very familiar with risk.”

Michael Falter, Pickford’s program director, and other representatives of independent theaters engaged in hectic talks with Sony in the days just before Christmas. The breakthrough came, Falter said, when Sony officials agreed the theaters could, if necessary, show “The Interview” just once a day, to squeeze it into their slates of previously scheduled films.

Soon after, Falter received a phone call from an FBI agent in Seattle who said there was no real concern about physical threats to theaters. But the agent sent cautionary technical information about cyber attacks that was relayed to the local person who handles Pickford’s website.

“The Interview” opened to a full house at Pickford, 1318 Bay St., on Dec. 26, and is booked at least through Thursday, Jan. 8.

To protest the specter of foreign intimidation of a movie, some people bought tickets at the Pickford but didn’t bother to see the show, Purves said.

“They like the fact that we’re nimble enough to make the decision and able to stand up for freedom of expression,” she said.

Movies by Rogen and Franco often feature sex, drugs and general frat-house debauchery, so “The Interview” isn’t typical fare for the Pickford. Perhaps that’s why, on opening night, more than 20 percent of the 132 people in attendance were at the Pickford for the first time, according to a show of hands.

Digital advance?

When the major theater chains canceled “The Interview,” Sony turned to other outlets to recoup its reported $44 million investment. Along with screenings at independent theaters, the movie was simultaneously made available for rent and sale online. Industry watchers say it’s the first such dual approach by a major movie studio.

Falter said that when Pickford booked the movie, there was talk that Sony was considering online release, but details were sketchy. Falter said he was later displeased when the broad nature of the online release, and low online prices to rent the movie, became apparent.

“The Interview” reaped $15 million online its first weekend, plus nearly $3 million from theater screenings. That’s almost the $20 million Sony estimated the movie would earn from a traditional unveiling in 2,500 to 3,000 theaters across the country, according to NPR.

The early digital success of “The Interview” has left some people wondering if a revolution in film distribution is at hand. In Falter’s view, the movie’s receipts, from theaters and online combined, were tepid compared to what might have been earned with a nationwide theater release, followed by online later. He said Sony should have given major theater chains more time to assess the security risk, and release the movie a bit later once they were sure it would be safe.

“Sony botched it,” Falter said.

But once the theater chains canceled the movie rather than show it during the busy Christmas weekend, Sony understandably scrambled for other outlets, from independent theaters to early online, he said. Given the widespread publicity about the cyber attack and North Korea’s fury, Sony had to move fast to distribute the movie while it was still hot news, Falter said.

“Two weeks from now, nobody’s going to care about ‘The Interview,’” he said.

Dubious merit?

By their nature, banned movies — from “Last Tango in Paris” to “Brokeback Mountain” to “The Last Temptation of Christ” — spark debate about their underlying merit. “The Interview” is no different.

Adam Chandler, writing for The Atlantic, said the movie shows a “surprisingly nuanced streak” because Skylark and Rapoport use sharp questioning during the interview, not poison or a gun, to undo Kim. But David Rogers, writing for Politico, said there’s nothing funny about a movie premised on the assassination of a living head of state.

Asked last Tuesday whether she had seen “The Interview,” Purves said she might, but might not.

“Right now we have several films that I really want to see,” she said.

Still, Purves said she’s thrilled that the Pickford helped make the movie available.

“To be associated with this moment, this tiny moment in cinematic history, there’s a lot of pride,” she said. “We’re on the right side. We’re against the hackers.”