12/13/2014 07:30 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

For 'The Interview,' Even Negative Publicity (Like A Massive Sony Hack) Is Good Publicity

Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP

Some bad news for Sony might end up being good news for one of the company's movies.

A massive hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment's computer system has been devastating to the studio, leading to leaks of unreleased movies, embarrassing emails and sensitive employee information. But it has also brought a lot of attention to "The Interview," the movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that some say prompted the hack. The film, due for release on Christmas Day, has become the topic of countless news stories and social media chatter, likely widening the movie's potential audience.

"It's creating a buzz," said Steven Fink, who wrote Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable. "Wouldn't you want to see what all the hype is about?"

In the film, Rogen and Franco's characters work for a TV show and score an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. They are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. Investigators haven't determined who hacked Sony, but many suspect North Korea might have been involved, perhaps as retaliation for the film. A North Korean official has denied government involvement.

From Nov. 20 to Dec. 3, a period that includes the first public news of the hack on Nov. 24, views of "The Interview" trailers were up 895 percent from the Nov. 6-19 period, according to data from Tubular Labs, a YouTube analytics company. Sony released a second trailer for the movie during that period as well, which like explains some of the spike in interest.

But, in its first week, views of the second trailer far outpaced views of second trailers for other Sony movies, indicating the hack could have boosted interest in "The Interview," according to Tubular. The second trailer for "The Interview" garnered 2.2 million views in its first week, while second trailers for "The Wedding Ringer" and "Annie" reached 815,000 and 400,100 views, respectively, in their first week.

Allison Stern, the co-founder of Tubular, said "The Interview" content has been around for six months but one-third of the views on it came in the past month -- definitely a "bump" from the expected growth rate.

Data from Google Trends also suggest the controversy has increased interest in the film:

google trends

This chart from Google Trends shows the dips and spikes of Google searches for "The Interview." "Birdman," by comparison, has a less-volatile search history. Sony also released a new trailer for "The Interview" after the hack was publicly known, which likely explains part of the spike in interest. In comparison, the first spike for "Birdman" occurred when its trailer was released and the larger spike happened when the movie opened.

There's a long history of controversy propelling films, TV shows, books and albums to greater popularity. There's a reason the phrase "there's no such thing as bad publicity" exists. Bad book reviews can actually boost sales by an average of 45 percent if the author is relatively unknown, according to a 2012 study from researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Fink, the crisis-management expert, recalled the release of "The China Syndrome," a 1979 film in which Jane Fonda played a reporter who convinces an engineer to blow the whistle on a dangerous nuclear power plant. The movie opened 12 days before the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident.

"I was ecstatic that it was extremely commercially successful," Fonda said of the film in an interview on a retrospective edition of the DVD, according to a 2007 New York Times report. "You know the expression 'We had legs'? We became a caterpillar after Three Mile Island."

The monthslong controversy over Mel Gibson's 2004 movie "The Passion of the Christ" that included allegations of anti-Semitism likely helped the film earn more than $23 million on its opening day. One of the movie's more prominent detractors, Rabbi Eugene Korn, the former head of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, told a 2004 panel that he and other critics made a "strategic error" by arguing over the film in public for so long before its release, the Times reported at the time.

Celebrity deaths can have a similar effect. Shortly after actor Heath Ledger died in 2008, sales of his movies spiked and more than 7 million fans raced to YouTube to watch trailers of "The Dark Knight," the actor's last completed project, The Associated Press reported at the time.

"Anything like that happens, it makes you want to go see [the movie]," said Jeff Greenfield, the co-founder of C3 Metrics, a media analytics firm. "It just shows that people tend to like and get attracted to things that are negative."

the interview movie

Movie posters at the premiere of "The Interview" in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Of course, any increase in box office sales for the film probably won't outweigh the consequences of the hack for Sony, said Mikey Glazer, a columnist for entertainment website The Wrap. A Sony representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"I'm sure it's not something they wished for," Glazer said.

One party may get a surprising benefit, though. "In some twisted way, this movie is actually wonderful for North Korea because it makes them out to be a superpower -- at least fictionally -- that the U.S. feels is worthy of assassination," said Jason Maloni, a senior vice president at crisis communications firm Levick.