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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "The Interview" took in more than $1 million in a limited Christmas Day release, a decent start for the raunchy comedy that appeared dead after Sony Pictures pulled it from theaters last week following a devastating cyberattack blamed on North Korea.
Even though the film was very much in the zeitgeist and also up for rental on YouTube and Google Play, it was unclear whether the Seth Rogan movie would recoup the $44 million it cost to make, or the additional millions spent on marketing.
The comedy, steeped in gross-out, bathroom humor that depicts a fictional plot to assassinate North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, managed to fill a few hundred theaters that made a last-minute push to screen the film.
"They (Sony) got $1 million in sales, that's a nice bit of gravy... knowing the main release isn't happening the way it should be," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of boxofficeguru.com.
"The Interview" was shown in 331 mostly independent theaters in the United States - less than 10 percent of its planned wide release - after major U.S. movie chains balked at showing the movie due to security concerns.
It was expected to gross at least $20 million over the long holiday weekend if in wide release, according to Boxoffice.com.
Sony Pictures also released the movie online via Google Inc's YouTube and Google Play, Microsoft Corp's Xbox gaming console and Sony's own dedicated website. It is looking for more partners for digital distribution, though hundreds of thousands of people have reportedly downloaded it from pirate sites.
"Considering the incredibly challenging circumstances, we are extremely grateful to the people all over the country who came out to experience 'The Interview' on the first day of its unconventional release," Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures president of distribution, said in a statement.
The controversy gave the film exposure to audiences that might never have gone to see the movie, and many who showed up on Christmas Day said they were there to support free speech.
One of those was David Humdy, 65, an entertainment industry accountant who saw the film in Los Angeles and declared it "silly, entertaining, better than I thought."
So far, Sony has not released online sales figures, but the screwball comedy was the top film on YouTube and Google Play.
Pandya believes Sony Pictures will be able to absorb losses easily, as it is not unusual for a film of its budget to fall short.
"It's hard to find a way that they recoup it all because they did end up spending a lot of money on marketing for a theatrical release that never happened," he added.
Pandya estimated that "The Interview" would have grossed about $5 million on Christmas Day had it been in wide release.
It did take in an estimated $3,142 per screen without the benefit of playing in the largest multiplexes. That is about double the amount if the film had been in wide release.
The two biggest Christmas Day releases, Universal's "Unbroken" and Disney's "Into the Woods," respectively grossed $4,980 and $6,182 per screen, according to studio estimates.
Additional reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Dan Grebler