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Terror threats over ‘The Interview’ are quandary for Sony

Seth Rogen, left, and Evan Goldberg pose during a photocall for their latest film “The Interview” in Barcelona, Spain, June 18, 2014.
Robert Marquardt | Getty Images
Seth Rogen, left, and Evan Goldberg pose during a photocall for their latest film “The Interview” in Barcelona, Spain, June 18, 2014.

Sony Pictures Entertainment, the F.B.I.,theater owners and competing film studios scrambled on Tuesday to deal with a threat of terrorism against movie theaters that show Sony's "The Interview," a raunchy comedy about the assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

The threat was made in rambling emails sent to various news outlets Tuesday morning. A version posted by The Hollywood Reporter said, in part: "Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you'd better leave.)"

The email specifically aimed its threat at "the very times and places" at which "The Interview" is to be first shown. The film is set for release on Christmas Day. A New York premiere is planned for Wednesday night; the film's Los Angeles premiere was held Dec. 11 without incident.

That email warning turned a continuing attack on Sony by hackers from a matter of theft to one of terrorism. A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. said it "is aware of the threat and is continuing to investigate the attack on Sony."

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Late Tuesday, a person with knowledge of Sony's dealings said that the theater chain Carmike Cinemas had canceled its showings of the movie. Carmike could not be reached for comment.

A Homeland Security official said the department was analyzing the threat but as yet had found no clear indication of an active plot against theaters. Sony had no comment.

Tuesday's development posed an ugly dilemma for Sony and exhibitors: whether to pull "The Interview," caving to hackers who have wreaked havoc with Sony's digital systems for weeks in an attempt to block the release,or to forge ahead, risking possible violence and potential legal liability. In an already-fragile industry, studio executives privately voiced concern that any theater violence could swing the market further toward home viewing.

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Several people briefed on Sony's internal discussions on Tuesday said the studio was not withdrawing the film but had told theater owners that it would not object if they canceled or avoided booking "The Interview." Those people spoke on condition of anonymity. Theater owners have been particularly pressed by the operators of malls and stores within them to avoid the film, two of those people said.

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An executive for one of the theater chains, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, called the invocation of the 9/11 terror attacks by hackers "a game changer." The executive last week dismissed the notion that theater owners might shy away from "The Interview" over earlier, more general threats by North Korean officials and pressure from the hackers, who have called themselves the Guardians of Peace. Nobody yet knows the hackers' true identity.

Representatives of AMC Entertainment, Regal Entertainment and Cinemark, North America's three largest theater chains, did not respond to queries. A spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners, which represents exhibitors, declined to comment.

Pressure to pull the "The Interview," which stars Seth Rogen and James Franco and is directed by Mr. Rogen and Evan Goldberg, has centered on its depiction of Mr. Kim's assassination. To depict the killing of a sitting world leader, comically or otherwise, is virtually without precedent in major studio movies, film historians say. Mr. Rogen canceled planned publicity interviews on Tuesday.

But a broad threat of theater violence, following a sustained attack on Sony's digital existence, is also without precedent, and opens a new range of worry for Hollywood.

Read MoreAfter delay, Sony warns workers about leaked data

As Sony and exhibitors spoke in a 2 p.m. conference call on Tuesday, they faced the concerns of competing studios, whose important holiday films will be playing side-by-side with "The Interview" in multiplexes nationwide.

A further complication is a general reluctance, even after the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., theater, to visibly increase security, which might create an impression that multiplexes in general are not safe and might complicate dealings with their own insurers.

It is not unusual for studios to face threats for planned releases. In 2012, Sony was peppered with less specific threats related to "Zero Dark Thirty," about the killing of Osama bin Laden. It opened largely without incident. Universal Pictures in 1988 was besieged by angry protesters when it released Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," with its depiction of an earthy Jesus; more than a dozen people were injured when Christian opponents of the film firebombed a Paris theater showing the movie.

But those actions stopped short of what hackers appear to have promised on Tuesday.

Read MoreHow the Sony hack panic has changed Hollywood

Separately, a lawsuit was filed late Monday on behalf of two former Sony Pictures employees whose personal information was stolen and published online. Lawyers for the plaintiffs noted that the hackers had" repeatedly followed through" on threats to disseminate the data. The complaint, filed in United States District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles, states that Sony ignored warnings that its computer systems were susceptible to attack.

Calling the publication of personal information "an epic nightmare" for current and former Sony Pictures employees, the lawsuit argues that the studio "failed to secure its computer systems, servers and databases, despite weaknesses that it has known about for years." Hackers claim to have taken at least 100 terabytes of Sony data, or about 10 times the amount stored in the Library of Congress, according to the complaint.

At the same time, diverging views on what to do with "The Interview" have emerged inside the company. The studio's powerful movie division has vigorously dug in around continued plans for a wide release,arguing that shelving the film would open the door to a cascade of threats by any determined group that dislikes a movie's content. Sony's movie executives also fear that pulling the movie would deeply injure its standing in Hollywood's creative ranks, sending top filmmakers, writers and producers to rival studios.

Sony Pictures executives also say they believe that "The Interview" has a shot at being a major box-office hit in North America, particularly given the avalanche of publicity surrounding it. The film, which cost $44 million to make, could take in $30 million in its first four days alone, according to surveys that track audience interest.

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That curiosity could evaporate if people feel threatened.

But support for "The Interview" is not anywhere near universal within Sony, where employees have suffered from the leak of medical, salary and other personal information and have faced threats from the hackers even before Tuesday's email.

Outside of the studio's movie core — in departments including a large television operation and consumer products —there are increasingly negative feelings about the movie. "Why are we all paying the price for a movie that isn't even very good?" one Sony home entertainment official said on Tuesday. In early reviews, "The Interview" has received mixed-to-negative scores.