Sony Pictures released "The Interview," a comedy involving a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, over the Internet on Wednesday, one day before its screening at hundreds of theaters across the United States.
The film became available at 1 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time on YouTube, Google Play, and Xbox Video to rent for US$5.99 and to purchase for $14.99. It was also available at a website set up exclusively to show the movie, SeeTheInterview.com.
The online release was a sharp reversal of Sony's earlier decision to cancel the planned Christmas Day release of the movie.
Sony made that decision after hackers disrupted its computer network and threatened attacks on theaters showing the movie.
But the company found itself under a wave of public criticism for bending to threats, with U.S. President Barack Obama also calling the cancellation decision a "mistake."
On Tuesday, Sony called off the much-denounced decision and authorized screenings at independent theaters. More than 300 theaters across the U.S. are expected to show the movie on Christmas Day.
"It was essential for our studio to release this movie, especially given the assault upon our business and our employees by those who wanted to stop free speech," Sony Entertainment Chief Executive Michael Lynton said in a statement. "We chose the path of digital distribution first so as to reach as many people as possible on opening day, and we continue to seek other partners and platforms to further expand the release."
The White House welcomed the decision.
"As the president made clear on Friday, we do not live in a country where a foreign dictator can start imposing censorship here in the United States. With today's announcements, people can now make their own choices about the film, and that's how it should be," spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.
In Washington, West End Cinema, a small theater with 75 seats, said that it plans to show the movie four times on Christmas Day, and tickets for three showing times were sold out.
"We're treating it just like any other movie," Joshua Levin, general manager of the theater, said when asked if there are any security measures taken because of threats of violence from hackers. As he spoke, phone calls kept coming in about tickets for the movie.
The movie tells the story of two American journalists who land an interview with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang but are then recruited by the CIA to kill him. Pyongyang has condemned the movie as the "most undisguised" sponsoring of terrorism.
The FBI has determined that North Korea was behind the hacking attack.
The communist nation rejected U.S. accusations of its involvement as an "unfounded rumor," though it lauded the hacking attack as a "righteous deed." Pyongyang has also proposed a joint investigation with the U.S., but Washington rejected the suggestion.
Experts say that North Korea fears the movie will ultimately make its way into the secretive, totalitarian nation, where a strong cult of personality around its leader controls its hunger-stricken population of 24 million.