Either this is the worst case of cultural imperialism in recent memory, or the most innovative PR campaign in history. The premiere of the new Sony Pictures comedy The Interview has been canceled after terrorist threats from the hacker group that took credit for the theft of massive amounts of data from Sony Entertainment. It threatened a 9/11-style response on any theater that dared to show the Seth Rogen-James Franco film, and the Landmark Sunshine Theater in New York backed away as a result:

A spokesperson for Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema has confirmed that Thursday’s premiere of Sony’s Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy “The Interview” has been canceled in the wake of the ominous message sent by Sony hackers on Tuesday morning. The message threatened a 9/11-style attack on theaters showing the film.

Rogen and Franco are taking a lower profile, although it may be mutual:

The duo attended last week’s Los Angeles premiere, which was a low-key affair at which interviews were not allowed. Earlier Tuesday, they canceled media appearances including a Buzzfeed Brews conversation, Rogen’s Thursday appearance on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and an interview with both of them on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on Wednesday.

Sony still plans on moving forward with The Interview, but won’t hold theater owners to their contractual obligations to show it:

The scaling back of publicity came as the Carmike Cinema chain announced that it would not be screening the film, due to open in the US on Christmas Day. Shares in Carmike, as well as the country’s three other biggest cinema chains — AMC, Regal and Cinemark and Carmike — all fell after news of the threat broke.

An announcement by Sony on Tuesday said the decision whether to pull screenings lay in the hands of picturehouse owners, but added that the studio hoped to proceed with the planned nationwide rollout of the film.

Variety quotes Tom Stephenson, the CEO of Look Cinemas, saying: “If they play it, we’ll show it. Sony has a right to make the movie, we have a right to play it and censorship in general is a bad thing.”

But there is said to be growing unease among both cinema chains and rival studios that the threats may cause audiences to stay away from cinemas over one of the key weekends in the calendar.

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security took the unusual step of announcing that they have no evidence of a terror plot in place against movie theaters, but that they would be on heightened alert to watch for signs of such:

The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday that it is unaware of any active plot against movie theaters in connection with the hacking of Sony Pictures.

The comment comes after the purported hackers posted a note online and sent emails to reporters,reprinted by several news sites, suggesting they may attack any cinema that screens The Interview, a Sony comedy about an assassination plot against a fictional version of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

A Department of Homeland Security official, who requested anonymity, told Fortune that the government is aware of the threat and that it will continue to monitor the situation.

“We are still analyzing the credibility of these statements, but at this time there is no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States,” the DHS official said in a statement. “As always, DHS will continue to adjust our security posture, as appropriate, to protect the American people.”

Nevertheless, the country’s top five major theater chains have now pulled out:

Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, Carmike Cinemas and Cineplex Entertainment have all decided against showing the film.

The “Guardians of Peace” have been disavowed by the North Korean government, but suspicions remain that this has been a state-sponsored operation. Perhaps anticipating that, the group released e-mails showing Sony consulted at least two US government officials on The Interview:

The Daily Beast has unearthed several emails that reveal at least two U.S. government officials screened a rough cut of the Kim Jong Un assassination comedy The Interview in late June and gave the film—including a final scene that sees the dictator’s head explode—their blessing.

The claim that the State Department played an active role in the decision to include the film’s gruesome death scene is likely to cause fury in Pyongyang. Emails between the Sony CEO and a security consultant even appear to suggest the U.S. government may support the notion that The Interview would be useful propaganda against the North Korean regime. …

“Bruce – Spoke to someone very senior in State (confidentially),” wrote Lynton. “He agreed with everything you have been saying. Everything. I will fill you in when we speak.”

The following day, June 26, an email from Bennett to Lynton—as well as several other forwarded emails—revealed that Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, was helping to consult on the film as well through Bennett and addressed the June 20 threat by North Korea.

“Michael, 
I talked with Amb. King a few minutes ago,” wrote Bennett. “Their office has apparently decided that this is typical North Korean bullying, likely without follow-up, but you never know with North Korea. Thus, he did not appear worried and clearly wanted to leave any decisions up to Sony.”

Famous last words, and all that. At any rate, this has now put The Interview into a class by itself — practically a dare for theater owners and audiences to defy terrorists, ironically making participation by both almost a patriotic duty.

I figured that would eventually happen for some kind of film, but it’s a little depressing to see that dynamic in play for a hipster farce that more or less regurgitates a plot that was skewered by Team America: World Police a decade ago. On the other hand, at least it’s not a comic-book movie or a sequel, so … go USA, or something.

The studios now have an incentive to do something innovative in direct-to-consumer distribution. If this happens often enough, it might be that the cinema chains will have taken the first shovel to what will be their own graves.

Update (Allahpundit): I hope our fearless leadership in Washington is preparing some form of retaliation, cyber or otherwise, for the NorKs for terrorizing an American industry into submission. By dropping the film under pressure, the theaters are making the same concession that newspapers made in refusing to publish the Mohammed cartoons, replacing the free-speech norms of American culture with the norms of a more illiberal one. Going forward, with respect to North Korea at least, Hollywood will follow North Korean rules for what can and can’t be said. That can’t stand. And it’s a disgrace that Obama hasn’t said so already.

Speaking of retaliation, this is a nice idea but fraught with problems. Imagine being a North Korean peasant who picks up a DVD of “The Interview” that he found on the ground, brings it back to his home having no idea what it is, and then gets a surprise visit from the NorK gestapo, who find the disc on his kitchen table. What happens to that guy? There has to be a better way to strike back. This is one, especially if Sony makes the download free.

Update (Allahpundit): North Korea’s GDP as of 2011 was $40 billion. Sony’s market cap today is $22 billion. Seems like a reasonably evenly matched virtual fight. Why doesn’t Sony build its own cyberarmy and counter if the feds won’t?

Update (Allahpundit): What’d I just say about following North Korean rules?

The chilling effect of the Sony Pictures Hacking and terror threats against The Interview are reverberating. New Regency has scrapped another project that was to be set in North Korea. The untitled thriller, set up in October, was being developed by director Gore Verbinski as a star vehicle for Foxcatcher’s Steve Carell. It’s a paranoid thriller written by Steve Conrad and it was going to start production in March. Insiders tell me under the current circumstances, it just makes no sense to move forward. The location won’t be transplanted.

Jihadi hackers would be nuts not to try this the next time a war movie is in the works. In hindsight, it’s amazing Zero Dark Thirty made it to the screen.

Update (Allahpundit): Rarely do you see a terrorist victory quite this total. Bow down, America.