Sony on shelving 'The Interview': 'We had no choice'

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NEW YORK (AP) — Following pointed criticism from President Barack Obama for shelving "The Interview," Sony Pictures Entertainment on Friday defended its decision, claiming it had no choice but to cancel the film's Christmas Day theatrical release.

Obama said during a press conference Friday that Sony "made a mistake" in dropping "The Interview." However, the studio fired back, saying the cancellation happened only because the country's top theater chains pulled out. "This was their decision," Sony said in a statement.

"Without theaters, we could not release it in the theaters on Christmas Day. We had no choice."

Sony insists it has only cancelled the Christmas Day release and that it has been "actively surveying alternatives" to release the film on a different platform.

"It is still our hope that anyone who wants to see this movie will get the opportunity to do so," said Sony.

The back-and-forth volleying between one of Hollywood's top studios and the President of the United States was only the latest dramatic turn in the four weeks since a hacker group calling itself Guardians of Peace crippled Sony Pictures' computer systems and began leaking emails and data, insisting that the Seth Rogen North Korea satire not be released. The hacking escalated to terrorist threats against theaters showing the film. On Friday, the FBI officially named North Korea as the source of the hacking attacks.

Since Wednesday when Sony cancelled the film's Dec. 25 release, the studio has come under withering criticism by those who have said capitulating to hackers sets a dangerous precedent. Everyone from George Clooney to Newt Gingrich has bitterly reproached Sony for what they've called self-censorship that goes against American ideals of freedom of expression. Obama said the same Friday morning.

"I wish they had spoken to me first," said Obama in a press conference. "We cannot have a society in which some dictatorship someplace can start imposing censorship."

But in an interview with CNN on Friday, Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton disputed that, saying: "The President, the press and the public are mistaken about what happened." He also said that he spoke to a senior adviser in the White House about the situation.

"We were taken by surprise by the theaters, which is what we wanted to do first. Now we're trying to proceed and figure out what the next steps would be," Lynton told CNN.

By putting the blame at the feet of North American exhibitors, Sony seemingly appears to contradict earlier accounts of events.

The top multiplex chains in North America dropped "The Interview" on Wednesday only after Sony informed them that it would not protest if the theaters pulled the film. At the time, Regal Cinemas partly attributed cancelling "The Interview" ''due to wavering support of the film." AMC Entertainment noted "the overall confusion and uncertainty" surrounding the movie. Representatives for Regal, AMC, and Carmike did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for Sony also earlier seemingly crushed hopes of a video-on-demand or digital release of "The Interview," saying on Wednesday that Sony had no plans to release it.

Sony has been removing promotional materials for "The Interview" from its websites and trailers of the film from YouTube. Sony employees on Friday received an email from the hackers praising the "wise" decision to withdraw the film and warned against distributing it in "any format."

In the CNN interview, Lynton repeated the missive that Sony does not have "a direct interface with the American public," putting the onus of distribution and exhibition on retailers and theaters. Lynton said that though YouTube distribution is "one thing that we will consider," he also noted that no major video-on-demand or e-commerce site has stepped forward to offer to distribute the film.

A DVD release falls into the same category. "If we can't find one of those large retailers, or many of those large retailers to sell our DVDs, we wouldn't be able to provide them with 'The Interview'," said Lynton.

"We have not given in and we have not backed down," Lynton told CNN. "We have always had every desire to have the American public see this movie."

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