With theater chains defecting en masse, Sony Pictures Entertainment has pulled the planned Christmas Day release of “The Interview.”

“Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like,” the statement reads.

“We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public,” it continues. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

The studio did not say it would never release the picture theatrically.

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“The Interview” stars Seth Rogen and James Franco have canceled all upcoming media appearances following the latest threats made against theaters showing the movie, Variety has confirmed.

The duo has withdrawn from previously scheduled press appearances, including Rogen’s Thursday appearance on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and an interview with both of them on “The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, leading up to “The Interview’s” Christmas Day release. They were also booked for an appearance on Buzzfeed Brews in New York on Tuesday.

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Sony Corp. Chief Executive Kazuo Hirai ordered the film “The Interview” to be toned down after Pyongyang denounced it for depicting the assassination of North Korea’s leader, according to emails apparently stolen from Sony’s Hollywood studio…

According to emails that span from August through October and were obtained by Reuters, Hirai asked Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, to change a key shot in the film. It depicts Kim struck by a tank shell, causing his head to explode.

Pascal noted to Hirai that she had encountered resistance from the film’s creators, including Rogen, who wrote and co-directed it…

A Sony Corp. official told Reuters that Hirai rarely reviews specific scenes in films.

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Senior administration officials, who would not speak on the record about the intelligence findings, said the White House was still debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism campaign. Sony’s decision to cancel release of “The Interview” amounted to a capitulation to the threats sent out by hackers this week that they would launch attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.

Officials said it was not clear how the White House would decide to respond to North Korea. Some within the Obama administration argue that the government of Mr. Kim must be directly confronted, but that raises the question of what consequences the administration would threaten — or how much of its evidence it could make public without revealing details of how the United States was able to penetrate North Korean computer networks to trace the source of the hacking.

Others argue that a direct confrontation with the North over the threats to Sony and moviegoers might result in escalation, and give North Korea the kind of confrontation it often covets. Japan, for which Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations underway for the return of Japanese nationals kidnapped years ago.

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“It’s hard for me to believe that a non-state actor or rogue ex-employee would have the capability or the capacity to be able to pull of something like this,” says Amy Chang, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security.

“If you look at the trajectory of the hack, and how much data they took, it had to have been taken over a really long period of time,” she says. “It seems to be something that was coordinated with lots of resources.”…

South Korea also claims that North Korea has a premiere hacking unit, known as Unit 121, that is, after the US and Russia, the “world’s third largest cyber unit.”…

“Because of the nature of the film and its content – assassination – this has the potential to create ripples in North Korea,” Chang posits. “They are a very closed-off society, but sometimes pirated films can make it through the borders.”

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The Sony hack isn’t important because of its technological sophistication, which is impressive but probably not particularly innovative. While neither Sony nor the FBI has released the exact details, so far there is little to suggest that this was some brilliant, unprecedented maneuver on the order of the NSA’s still-astounding StuxNet, a virus which managed to sneak its way into the isolated nuclear facilities of Iran and sabotage them. What’s remarkable is the sheer destruction leveled at Sony and its employees. For perhaps the first time, a major American company really did suffer a worst-case cyberassault scenario

Consider most of the high-profile hacks of recent years, like the theft of millions of credit card numbers from Target, or The Fappening’s stolen celebrity nudes from Apple accounts, or, indeed, the theft of 77 million Sony PlayStation accounts in 2011. All of these were costly, damaging thefts of private information, but they were fundamentally thefts. Not this time. While tabloid rags are salivating over the juicy Hollywood gossip and Aaron Sorkin is writing impassioned polemics against revealing stolen information, these hackers, whoever they are, genuinely do deserve to be termed cyberterrorists. Many attacks are for financial gain or revelation of valuable or salacious information. The latter is a factor here, but the overriding aim seems to have been to damage Sony Pictures and its employees to the point at which they could barely even function. To my knowledge, there has never before been a cyberattack of this scale. The Guardians of Peace didn’t just steal 100 TB (an ungodly amount) of sensitive data, they also used “wiper malware” to more or less destroy Sony’s internal systems, leaving its entire infrastructure crippled…

[B]y so effectively creating a climate of fear and making threats of actual violence, the Guardians of Peace have raised the specter of genuine cyberterroristic acts to come. These acts aren’t scary because they’re ingenious, but because they could be easily replicated by anyone with the right resources and enough malice.

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The film’s collapse stirred considerable animosity among Hollywood companies and players. Theater owners were angry that they had been boxed into leading the pullback. Executives at competing studios privately complained that Sony should have acted sooner or avoided making the film altogether.

And Sony employees and producers bitterly complained that they had been jeopardized to protect the creative prerogatives of Mr. Rogen and Mr. Goldberg…

The incident is likely to be remembered as a failure of Hollywood leadership. As the attack progressed, both studios and the industry’s Washington-based trade associations — the theater association and the Motion Picture Association of America — remained in a defensive posture, and ultimately found no way to save the film or to stem the flow of Sony’s private data, which has been released online by hackers in waves since Nov. 24.

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This is the type of attention that the movie theater industry really doesn’t need right now. People, especially young people, are attending fewer films in theaters because of high ticket prices and the easy availability of other entertainment options…

That’s what makes the decision to not show “The Interview” such a missed opportunity for one of the four major chains. If one had shown courage and decided to show the film, it would have received significant positive press coverage while also facing little competition for people who wanted to see “The Interview” over the holidays. It was the perfect opportunity for one of them to stand out. And all four blew it.

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The Internet has enabled the hackers’ power, but it has also neutered them: The Interview will almost certainly be seen, whether in theaters or not. In 1990, a similar situation would have doomed a film to utter obscurity. Even in 2001, the Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicle Collateral Damage, which was due for release on October 5, 2001 and was pushed to the next February because it depicted a bomb attack in the U.S., was basically forgotten outside of that pop-culture history footnote. But because of on-demand technology, The Interview could very well benefit, in a cruel and unusual sort of way, from all this bizarre publicity. Were the situation not so financially harmful and publicly embarrassing for Sony, it’d be easy to conspiratorially regard it as some kind of high-concept publicity stunt to convince us of The Interview’s political bravery.

Still, who knows if that will translate into online viewings—or what Sony will even charge for the privilege of watching it in one’s own home, free of a terrorist threat. That’s how precedent-setting this is: Nothing like this has ever happened before. Three years ago Universal weighed releasing its comedy Tower Heist on VOD three weeks after it hit theaters, at $60 a pop, to generate public interest. Theaters threatened to boycott and the decision was scrapped. We lived in strange times then—but stranger times now.

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Sony et al. should not have knuckled under to the demands of terrorists, but options remain: The most obvious course of action is Sony to make the film widely available online through services such as iTunes and Netflix If that proves impossible, then Sony should go ahead and write off the ticket sales, the loss of which it already is contemplating, and simply post the film online in its entirety at any of the many sites hosting user-generated content. Some hosts may take it down in response to threats, but once it is out there it will be out there forever. Sony will lose some money that it probably is going to lose in any case, but it will establish a desirable precedent.

On the subject of precedents, the news media have established a poisonous standard in this matter. The occasions upon which we find ourselves in agreement with the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are rare, but he is correct in arguing that news media mining stolen e-mails for their gossip columns are “giving material aid to criminals,” specifically to terrorists working in the service of a Stalinist prison state notorious for having reduced its people to occasional bouts of cannibalism. That is a high price to pay for a couple of column inches about a studio chief characterizing Angelina Jolie as a “spoiled brat.” It has been a shameful spectacle. The media here are trafficking in stolen property in furtherance of a propaganda project undertaken by a dictatorship almost unique in its repressiveness. There are times when publishing such information serves a legitimate public interest; it is very difficult to take seriously the proposition that this is one of them.

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I understand that news outlets routinely use stolen information. That’s how we got the Pentagon Papers, to use an oft-used argument. But there is nothing in these documents remotely rising to the level of public interest of the information found in the Pentagon Papers.

Do the emails contain any information about Sony breaking the law? No. Misleading the public? No. Acting in direct harm to customers, the way the tobacco companies or Enron did? No. Is there even one sentence in one private email that was stolen that even hints at wrongdoing of any kind? Anything that can help, inform or protect anyone?

The co-editor in chief of Variety tells us he decided that the leaks were — to use his word — “newsworthy.” I’m dying to ask him what part of the studio’s post-production notes on Cameron Crowe’s new project is newsworthy. So newsworthy that it’s worth carrying out the wishes of people who’ve said they’re going to murder families and who have so far done everything they’ve threatened to do. Newsworthy. As the character Inigo Montoya said in “The Princess Bride,” I do not think it means what you think it means.

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Both the fappening and the Sony email dump have been described by the media as “leaks”—suggesting intent on behalf of some party to the conversations to get the offending documents out there—as opposed to “hacks,” or, better, “thefts.” (Words matter, people.) With the theft of the nude photos, you have personal, private communiques in the forms of photos that were stolen and widely disseminated for little more than the titillation of third parties. The theft of the Sony emails is arguably even more troubling: We have a situation in which private communiques in the form of emails were stolen in order to a.) extort money from a business, and b.) blackmail that business into not releasing an implicitly political document (The Interview, a movie about the assassination of North Korea’s tinpot dictator)…

No. This is a document dump that was explicitly designed to embarrass a company’s employees for committing the crime of mocking an angry little tyrant with a bad case of the gout, an awful haircut, and very thin skin.

I’m not saying the press shouldn’t be reporting on this—or, even more ridiculously, that the government should be in the business of suppressing such reporting—but it’s worth at least considering the damage we’re doing by aiding the “Guardians of Peace” in their quest to disseminate the embarrassing info. After all, by reporting on this data dump we are literally helping the (cyber) terrorists win.

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We will all be hacked. We will all be embarrassed. The things we say about ourselves, our coworkers, our spouses, and our bosses will be available for all to see. 

And depending on your level of success, fame or importance in political matters –they will be published, and published, and published. And the torture will be driven by the public and media hunger for titillating bucket-filling novelty.

For those of you in the media sinking your teeth into this muck, the karma will be complete: you will get it back in spades. And don’t think you’re immune because no one knows you, and therefore won’t care that you once sent a pleading email to Mario  Lopez asking for a shirtless picture of him on a llama.

Consider the typical young reporter filing a story like this for a national paper – he likely thinks no one cares about his late night emails to drug dealers, or the shit he says about the owner of the rag. But the thing is: someone will – one day.

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Is this now to be how America works? If so — if the friends of a campy two-bit dictatorship can force us to put our tails between ours legs and ask not to be thrown into the briar patch — then one can only wonder how we might expect to stand up to our more competent foes. Will we perhaps start pulling books critical of the Iranian leaders, the better to protect Barnes and Noble from incoming Molotov cocktails? Will we remove websites that satirize the Chinese Communist party in order to forestall denial-of-service attacks on their hosts? Will we shut down newspapers that print broadsides against the Putin regime, lest his online buddies send a few death threats our way? I would certainly hope not. Rather, I would hope that we recognize that freedom of expression is the most vital of all our civic virtues, and that no good whatsoever can come of according a heckler’s veto to hackers, to family crime syndicates, and to their nasty little enablers on the international stage. If the right of a free people to associate and to speak as they wish is not deemed by civil society as worthy of fighting for, what exactly is?

Sadly, one cannot help but see in this response some faint echoes of another, disheartening development: to wit, our present tendency to accommodate the thin-skinned and the intolerant and to permit their professed discomfort to interfere with our public debate. As much as it is anything else, liberty is a mindset, and the more reflexively we take seriously the complaints of the terminally silly, the less habitually we should expect to see resolve in the face of bullying. In our schools, in the media, and in all of our political arenas, we have of late become accustomed to kowtowing to hecklers, to fleeing from anything controversial, and to treating the outrage du jour as if it were representative of anything more substantial than rank self-indulgence and the desire to silence dissent. Before a people can be cajoled by the fear of reprisal into canceling a work of art, they must first have been familiarized with the process.

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“How many people would not got to see it because of this threat?” O’Donnell asked the live studio audience. “Because I wouldn’t go. Truthfully. I wouldn’t … It’s not worth it to me to see a movie that’s supposedly not even that funny.”