Batman massacre loomed over cinemas
When a group claiming credit for the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment threatened violence against cinemas showing The Interview earlier this week, the fate of the movie's big-screen life was all but sealed.
Even though police did not deem the threats credible at the time, owners and Sony undoubtedly considered the 2012 massacre of a dozen people in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado .
That attack came without warning and at the time there was no precedent for such mass violence against a US movie audience.
The cinema owner contends it could not have foreseen the bloodshed, but still faces 20 lawsuits over the mass shootings and survivors and victims' families asserting more should have been done to protect those who went to see a midnight showing of Batman film The Dark Knight Rises.
Experts say the defence used by Cinemark Holdings could not be used if violence broke out at a showing of The Interview.
"It wasn't worth the risk," said Eric Wold, a film exhibitor analyst with B Riley & Co.
Despite the legal liability, at least one notable lawyer disagrees with the decision to cancel The Interview. US president Barack Obama said it was a mistake for Sony to scrap the film, and he wished executives had consulted him first.
"We cannot have a society in which some dictatorship someplace can start imposing censorship," he said.
Some Hollywood notables, including actors Rob Lowe, Steve Carrell and director Michael Moore, have also criticised Sony's decision.
Diplomatic and creative considerations aside, scrapping The Interview was not a huge financial consideration for cinema owners, who would ultimately be responsible for any lawsuits over violence.
The film, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, was expected to account for less than 2% of fourth-quarter earnings for cinemas, Mr Wold said.
Due to digital projections, cinema owners can quickly reprogramme their screens to show other movies, such as new releases The Hobbit 3 or Night At The Museum.
The alternative could have been serious injuries to moviegoers as well as multiple lawsuits if the group calling itself the Guardians of Peace, or a copycat, attacked a cinema, said Jonathan Handel, a lawyer and professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
"That's a lot of liability hanging over the theatre chain," he said.
He noted that mall owners and other studios had pressured Sony to cancel the Christmas Day release of The Interview. "They don't want the movie-going experience on Christmas Day to resemble check in at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport)," he said.
The film features an assassination plot against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the reclusive communist nation has condemned the movie. The FBI said yesterday that it had determined North Korea was responsible for the hacking of Sony's servers, which resulted in the theft of unreleased films, scripts, financial and medical information on employees and other corporate data.
It was only a matter of hours after hackers threatened massive violence against any cinema showing The Interview that exhibitors started dropping the film. And no wonder.
"If, God forbid, something happened, they're the ones who would be responsible for any lack of security or decisions that were made that led to the incident," said entertainment lawyer Uri Fleming of Kleinberg Lange Cuddy & Carlo.
Sony cited the cinema owners' decision to drop the film as the reason for pulling the movie.
"Without theatres, we could not release it in the theatres on Christmas Day. We had no choice," the company said. Sony said it was looking for alternative distribution channels for the film.
It remains unclear how a jury will perceive the case against Cinemark, which operated the Aurora cinema that James Holmes attacked in July 2012 during a midnight screening of the final instalment of the latest Batman trilogy.
In court filings, lawyers for victims of the shooting have noted that Cinemark deployed extra security at some of its midnight Dark Knight Rises screenings and had employed a security firm to assess the risk of a drug cartel attacking a cinema along the US-Mexico border.
In an August ruling rejecting a motion by Cinemark to throw out the Aurora victims' suits, US district court judge Brooke Jackson wrote that whether the company could have been expected to deploy extra security without a threat against its cinemas "is not an easy question to answer".
However, the judge noted that moviegoers were especially vulnerable to attack.
"Although theatres had theretofore been spared a mass shooting incident, the patrons of a movie theatre are, perhaps even more than students in a school or shoppers in a mall, 'sitting ducks'," he wrote.
Mr Fleming said Sony and the cinema chains are unlikely to face any significant repercussions from pulling The Interview.
"Business relationships are the glue that bind (Hollywood)," he said.