NEW YORK — Under the threat of terrorist attacks from hackers and with the nation’s largest multiplex chains pulling the film from their screens, Sony Pictures Entertainment took the unprecedented step of canceling the Dec. 25 release of the Seth Rogen comedy “The Interview.”

The cancellation announced Wednesday was a startling blow to the Hollywood studio that has been shaken by hacker leaks and intimidations over the last several weeks by an anonymous group calling itself Guardians of Peace.

A U.S. official said Wednesday that federal investigators have now connected the Sony hacking to North Korea and may make an announcement in the near future. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to openly discuss an ongoing criminal case.

Sony said it was canceling “The Interview” release “in light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film.” The studio said it respected and shared in the exhibitors’ concerns.

“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,” read the statement. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

Seemingly putting to rest any hope of a delayed theatrical release or a video-on-demand release Sony Pictures spokeswoman Jean Guerin later added: “Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film.”

Earlier Wednesday, Regal Cinemas, AMC Entertainment and Cinemark Theatres – the three top theater chains in North America – announced that they were postponing any showings of “The Interview.” The comedy, about a TV host (James Franco) and producer (Rogen) tasked by the CIA to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (played by Randall Park), has inflamed North Korea for parodying its leader.

The worldwide controversy surrounding “The Interview” has sparked a debate among Maine film fans over censorship and free speech.

The film, a comedy, is an unlikely target of protest. Rogen is known for his broad comedy and potty humor, not sophisticated satire or political commentary.

Maine film fans, including those who would not normally see a Rogen comedy said Wednesday the controversy raised issues of censorship and that shelving the movie could deter other filmmakers from controversial subjects.

“It’s a form of censorship. People have a right to see something. When threats like this are made over a film it’s kind of silly. I remember crossing (protest) lines to see “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) years ago,” said Edward Lorusso, 65, a film buff and silent film preservationist from Belgrade. “By not showing it they are taking away my right to see it. If these threats are successful, no one will bother to make anything controversial.”

Lorusso said he would likely not go see a comedy starring Rogen, but he’s slightly more interested in seeing “The Interview” now that theaters are not showing it.

Alice Persons of Westbrook does not plan to see the movie but said she thought not showing it would “set a very dangerous precedent” for other films.

“Artists, including filmmakers, must defend free speech,” said Persons, 62, who runs a poetry press, Moon Pie Press. “I saw the preview, and frankly, the movie looks puerile. But I do feel strongly that censorship is a terrible idea.”

But is not showing a big-budget Hollywood film really censorship or a free speech issue? Ken Eisen, who is the programmer for Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville and the Maine International Film Festival, isn’t so sure. His cinema does not show many big-budget Hollywood films and he was not planning to show this one. But his theater has shown many controversial films over the years.

“This a film that’s been vetted by Hollywood executives looking at their bottom line, who I don’t think intended to make anything controversial,” said Eisen. “We all believe in free speech, but I’m not sure this is about free speech.”

Eisen said the discussion about “The Interview” is complicated by the hacking of Sony, and by the possibility of a threat to filmgoers, either through physical harm or hacking.

“As a theater owner, the last thing I’d ever want is to endanger patrons in any way,” said Eisen. “And I sure wouldn’t do it with a Seth Rogen film.”

Sony had offered theaters the option of bowing out, and when so many of them did (other chains to drop it included ArcLight Cinemas, Cineplex Entertainment and Carmike Cinemas), Sony was left with little choice.

On Tuesday, the hacking group threatened violence at “the very times and places” showing “The Interview.” The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday there was “no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters,” but noted it was still analyzing messages from the group. The warning did prompt law enforcement in New York and Los Angeles to address measures to ramp up security.

President Obama commented on the hacking Wednesday in an interview with ABC News.

“The cyberattack is very serious,” said Obama. “We’re investigating and we’re taking it seriously. We’ll be vigilant. If we see something that we think is serious and credible then we’ll alert the public. But for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies.”

Sony was also under pressure from other studios. Christmas is one of the most important box-office weekends of the year, and the threats could have scared moviegoers away.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier

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