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Sony's "The Interview" may have proven popular at theaters (despite middling reviews), but the film's innovative digital distribution was even more popular with pirates.
After nebulous terrorist threats led major theaters to opt against showing the film on its intended Christmas Day opening, Sony distributed the comedy through several video-on-demand (VOD) services and independent theaters.
While some watchers heralded the studio's decision as a watershed moment for the film industry, the distribution experiment was not able to successfully guard against illegal downloads: Only 20 hours after its release, the movie saw more than 750,000 illegal copies downloaded, according to TorrentFreak.
The film was released simultaneously on YouTube, Google Play, and Microsoft's Xbox Live on Dec. 24. But by the time it opened in independent theaters on Christmas Day, "The Interview" already boasted a widely available pirated version.
The movie still grossed $1 million during its first day in theaters, Sony said Friday, but 750,000 pirated downloads at $6 per online rental could mean as much as $4.5 million in lost revenue. According to documents leaked by hackers, the budget for "The Interview" totaled $44 million—with about $20,000 going to Beyoncé and Jay-Z for cameos.
"Well, if they had the originally intended release, and that might be 3,000 theaters, this could have made in the high teen-millions or even break $20 million in the first four days," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of Box Office Guru.
He added, "[The Interview] is a mediocre comedy. It's not a must see film, but because of the controversy it became a pop culture phenomenon."
Pandya contends that Sony could have had more financial damage if one of their major tent-pole movies, like the "Amazing Spiderman" franchise, had been affected. The first and second Spiderman films both had budgets of over $200 million.
"Considering the incredibly challenging circumstances, we are extremely grateful to the people all over the country who came out to experience The Interview on the first day of its unconventional release," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Pictures.
Still, the heavy pirating is one of the reasons why "The Interview" distribution model will never become an industry standard, according to B. Riley & Co. Analyst Eric Wold.
"I think you are still never going to get a large high profile movie to be released simultaneously in theaters and digitally," he said. "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."
Some had suggested before its release that "The Interview" could have been an important learning moment for Sony and the rest of Hollywood.
"The upside of it is they're going to have learned a ton, and I think we as an industry are going to have learned a ton about alternative distribution methods, especially in a world where content can be delivered to mobile devices instantaneously," Bubba Murarka, a partner at DFJ Venture, told CNBC's "Squawk Alley" just before the movie became available.
Despite the rampant pirating, the movie's release was still "a success given the circumstances," Wold said, adding that studios may well have to accept that illegal downloads will become "the cost of doing business."
As for the future of "The Interview," Sony's digital distribution strategy may have cannibalized any audience that could have once justified a large-scale national release, according to Barbara Twist from Art House Convergence.
"This sort of unprecedented VOD release of this scale has really kind of struck a chord, and I think a lot of people who wanted to see the film have done so over the last 24 hours," she said.