Interview is Google's top-grossing film

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Sony Pictures' The Interview is the top-grossing movie of the year for Google Inc, after earning US$15 million (S$19.8 million) in online sales and rentals from all sources through Saturday.

The tally on Google's Play and YouTube outlets, Xbox and other Web sources dwarfs the US$2.84 million the Seth Rogen comedy took in this past weekend from movie theatres.

This Is The End, Rogen's directorial debut, generated US$20.7 million in its opening weekend last year.

Google spokesman Michelle Slavich declined to provide a figure for how much the movie generated on the company's sites.

The sales, an online record for Sony Pictures, will partly mitigate financial damage caused by the so-called Guardians of Peace, the hacking group that broke into the company's computers and released confidential corporate and personnel information. The studio, which is based in Culver City, California, spent an estimated US$80 million making and marketing the film.

"People went to the movie theatre, but there was a shift, where a lot of people had no choice but to get the film online," Mr Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at research firm Rentrak Corp, said in an interview. "The instantaneous delivery of content made it possible for Sony to change up the playbook at the 11th hour."

A cameraman for TMZ, the tabloid TV show and website, asked Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal at Los Angeles International airport if the movie would change the way Hollywood released movies.

"No, I don't know, you guys," she responded. The cameraman asked if the release would save her job. "I hope so," she said.

The farce about a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was screened in 331 locations, about 10 per cent of what Sony had planned before hackers threatened violence at movie theatres.

The US$15 million in digital revenue so far makes The Interview the studio's top-grossing online film, according to a Dec 28 statement from Sony Pictures, the entertainment division of Japan-based Sony Corp.

"Studios are not going to invest that kind of money for this potential return," Leonard Maltin, author and film historian, said in an interview. "Still, it shows that video on demand is a viable medium."

Excluding animated features, Rogen's top- grossing film is the 2014 movie Neighbors, which collected US$268.2 million in worldwide ticket revenue.

The film's opening weekend revenue was US$49 million in the United States, according to Rentrak. Studios split box-office sales with theatre owners.

Sony on Dec 17 scrapped the planned Christmas Day opening of The Interview, releasing major theatre chains from their contractual obligation to show the picture following the threats. The FBI has linked the hacking group to North Korea.

The four major US exhibitors - Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Entertainment Holdings, Cinemark Holdings and Carmike Cinemas - did not respond on Monday to requests for comment.

The studio cut a deal with independent theatre owners and the online outlets. The Interview is available online at US$5.99 to rent and US$14.99 to own at the Google Play store and YouTube, on Microsoft Corp's Xbox and a website dedicated to the film.

The movie is also available through Apple's iTunes.

The sales of the film provide a boost to Google Play, the search company's online store, which with YouTube generated the majority of the film's revenue.

Google has mounted a large marketing campaign for Play over the past year, said Ms Slavich, the spokesman.

The unusual circumstances surrounding the release, which turned a stoner comedy into a geo- political drama that engaged United States President Barack Obama and the United Nations, make it hard to compare the movie's financial performance with other films.

The picture has already earned more than Snowpiercer and Margin Call, two successful movies that appeared online and in theatres at the same time.

While those films were offered on a wider range of platforms than The Interview - including pay-TV services - the Rogen movie cost more to make.

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