Is 'The Interview' a success for Sony?

Sony's geopolitically contentious "The Interview" may have made $18 million in its opening weekend, but the film's staggered distribution is still underperforming some expectations for its originally planned release.

If not for the disastrous hacking, online terrorist threats and major theaters' refusal to show the movie, "The Interview" would have grossed between $20 million and $25 million, according to Macquarie Research analyst Chad Beynon. The film, which features Seth Rogen and James Franco trying to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, earned $15 million of that opening haul from digital downloads.

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"I think this was a win for Sony in the sense of, at first we didn't even know if they were going to release it or make a penny on this movie either in theaters or online," said Rentrak's Paul Dergarabedian, adding that he does not anticipate "a huge profit from this bottom-line number."

The movie may have even been a good option for an experiment with video on demand distribution because analysts never expected it to win the weekend.

"It wasn't a major release. Generally, these types of genres aren't going to be the major films that bring in $200 million to $300 million of revenues," Beynon said.

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"The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, won the weekend with a $54.5 million domestic haul.

After large movie theater chains, like AMC and Regal Entertainment, refused to screen the comedy following threats of violence from hackers who opposed the film, Sony stitched together a limited release in theaters and a $5.99 video-on-demand (VOD) rental and $14.99 purchase option on YouTube Movies, Google Play, Microsoft Xbox Video and a dedicated site starting Dec. 24.

But even though the major theater chains may have lost some revenue by not showing "The Interview," Beynon said it was not "significant money," and that the decision to pull the film was still "a nice move for the industry," as it guaranteed no one would be scared away from attending other screenings.

Sony spent an estimated $80 million in producing and marketing the movie.

It was still unclear whether Sony, which is still struggling with the impact of the cyberattack, would recoup the money it spent to make the film and the $30 million or $40 million in estimated marketing costs.

But in a sign of the film's power and place in the cultural debate, Apple said on Sunday it plans to carry the movie for rental and purchase on iTunes, the biggest and most-popular online content store.

"The Interview" is now considered by experts a test case for simultaneous VOD and theatrical release, a taboo topic for the movie theater chains that want to retain their exclusive window.

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"It'll be interesting to see how quickly industry moves forward with these kinds of services," said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. "This is money they don't need to share with the movie chains and that's a big deal. It could shake a lot of things up."

Many analysts disagree, however, with some declaring "The Interview" a relative non-event for the progression of the film industry.

"I think you are still never going to get a large high profile movie to be released simultaneously in theaters and digitally," B. Riley & Co. Analyst Eric Wold told CNBC on Friday. "Digital distribution simultaneous or early release is still going to be limited to smaller independent film. I don't think this will move digital distribution along more than it was before."

But even with the uncertain specter of VOD looming over the theaters, that industry is still expected to see a record 2015, Beynon said. He predicted over $11 billion in revenue for the upcoming year.

All major upcoming movies—including the second "Avengers" film, and the upcoming "Star Wars" sequel—will still spend several months in theaters before considering on-demand options, Beynon said.

—Reuters contributed to this report.