Christmas Day is traditionally a slow time for Chalmette Movies. The cinema opens late and caters to the handful of moviegoers looking for a break from the holiday festivities.
But Thursday the theater saw a steady stream of customers file into a pair of theaters. Some traveled for hours to get there and a few were the regulars the independent cinema’s owners know on sight.
What brought them to a small, independent theater tucked away inside a strip shopping center on West Judge Perez Drive was only in part the humor or artistry of “The Interview,” a film whose merits on both counts have been questioned by critics. In large part, seeing the film was a matter of not backing down to threats of cybercrime and violence.
“I think we feel more patriotic for coming,” Tara Smith said as she waited in the dim theater for the trailers to start rolling.
The theater in St. Bernard was one of 300 in the country to go forward with screenings of the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle about a pair of journalists recruited to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Hackers broke into Sony Pictures’ computer system earlier this month and threatened more serious attacks if the film’s release wasn’t canceled.
That led the large theater chains that controlled most of the 3,000 screens that were supposed to show the film Christmas Day to back out and ultimately caused Sony to cancel the release altogether.
But with that decision criticized by many, including President Barack Obama, Sony eventually allowed theaters to show the film and released it through online platforms Wednesday.
That controversy made seeing “The Interview” — and doing so on opening day — something of a statement.
“It’s essential that we go ahead and show it because if we cave like that, we’re lost,” said Tara Smith’s husband, Stan.
About 200 people made it to the first showing in Chalmette, the only theater in the New Orleans area playing the film, at 4:35 p.m. That’s nearly sell-out crowds for the two screens it was showing on and theater owner Wendeslaus Schulz said he expected to sell out the later shows.
For some, sending a message was the only reason to go.
“I’d heard of it, but it didn’t spark my interest at all,” Laura Counts said. But she and her husband decided to come see it “after all the hoopla.”
The theater had booked “The Interview” back in November, before it became the center of international intrigue, after seeing large crowds for two of Rogen’s most recent films, “Neighbors” and “This is the End,” Schulz said.
The largely middle-aged crowd in the theaters Thursday was older than the crowd that would typically come for the star’s stoner comedies, and, while the theater typically serves a local crowd, some —like Counts — came from as far away as northern St. Tammany Parish on Thursday.
Being one of a small handful of theaters to screen a movie isn’t new for Chalmette Movies, but typically those limited runs are for art-house or foreign films with far smaller budgets and audiences than “The Interview.”
Michael Chutz, of St. Bernard, said he had planned to see the movie even before it became the center of controversy, but “this makes me want to see it more.
“I’d like to see it in every movie theater across the country just as a slap in North Korea’s face,” Chutz said.
Moviegoers, and Schulz, said on Thursday that they weren’t concerned about the threats of violence from the hackers, which have largely been dismissed as unfounded by federal authorities.
“We joke that a lot of people in Metairie don’t know where Chalmette is. I’m sure he doesn’t, either,” Schulz said, referring to Kim.
As for the movie itself, Schulz planned to duck into the first screening to see for himself but said his general manager had seen it Thursday morning.
“He said it was better than he thought it would be,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson. The Associated Press contributed to this report.