From the District to Culpeper, they left their cozy Christmases at home to head out to a Manassas, Va., movie theater and — they said — to stand up for free speech.
“I’d normally be making music with my boys on Christmas,” said Ron Oley, 64, of Manassas. But this year, he told them that he wouldn’t be showing up at the recording studio. He had to see “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy around which a real-life drama has swirled for weeks.
North Korea didn’t like the story line, a plot to assassinate its leader, Kim Jong Un. Sony Pictures Entertainment was first deeply embarrassed by revelations after hackers broke into the company’s computer systems, and then it briefly hesitated to release the movie.
“This is a free country. I’m sorry they don’t have that over in their country, but we do. I’m an American,” Oley said while he waited in line at the concession stand.
The atmosphere was festive as patrons arrived for the 12:50 p.m. screening at Manassas 4 Cinemas, the first screening at one of the three D.C.-area theaters showing the movie.
“I’m very proud to release this film,” said Bunny Khorana, the owner of the movie house. “I don’t want to be tied down by anybody telling us what we can or cannot show. And we are having a ball.”
Rogen himself showed up at a screening of the film in Los Angeles, telling the crowd, “You are the best.”
“We thought this might not happen at all,” he said. “If it wasn’t for theaters like this, and people like you guys, this literally would not be . . . happening.”
The four-screen theater in Manassas had planned its Christmas lineup two months before, even though Christmas is usually a slow day for the independent theater, employee Phyllis Collins said. The plan: “Annie,” “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” and “The Interview.”
Then controversy exploded — a major cyberattack on Sony, an anonymous threat of terror at any cinema that showed the film, an abrupt decision by Sony to halt the release, then criticism from the tweeting masses all the way up to the White House.
Collins was among those who saw Sony’s initial decision as cowardly, and she welcomed the news that the company would relent and release the movie to independent theaters and online viewers.
“Things can happen anytime, any place. You can either spend your life worrying about something that may happen — you can spend your life sitting in your basement and you won’t move — or not,” Collins said.
She said that when the Manassas theater announced that it would show the movie, joining more than 300 other theaters across the country, it got calls from people all over the region.
“People are calling from Fredericksburg, from up in Arlington, who are just here because they don’t like the idea that somebody can tell them what they can or cannot watch,” she said. “That’s not cool.”
At 12:50 p.m., when the first of five screenings scheduled for Christmas Day at the theater began, 167 tickets had been sold, at $10 per adult. About 80 people were in the 320-seat theater, the largest of the four, watching Rogen and Franco’s antics.
Khorana said the turnout for the first screening was higher than he expected. By the time it let out — with attendees yelling “Awesome” and “It was great” as they left — more than 100 people were lined up for the next screening, which was scheduled for 2:55 p.m.
Khorana thought that the three nighttime shows would be much more popular. He said he might use all four screens, if the demand required it.
“It’s great that the big boys aren’t showing it. I’m going to cash in,” he said, referring to large theater chains.
Bonnie Nathan, a lawyer from Alexandria, said she skipped out on her friends’ Christmas Day outing to a Regal cinema because she wanted to see “The Interview.”
“I think it’s a really important statement,” Nathan said. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing today, on Christmas Day, than going to this movie as a demonstration of the freedom that we enjoy.”
Plus, she can still meet her friends for Chinese food, the other half of their Jewish Christmas, after she sees the comedy.
Ron and Meredith Oliver of Raleigh, N.C., were visiting Ron’s parents in Manassas. Normally, the movie theater would not be part of their holiday, they said. But this movie was different.
“At this point there’s an element of defiance. So there’s a statement. We’re glad this theater is showing the movie. We’re here to show support for the theater,” Ron said. “And it should be a funny movie.”
The grandparents took the Olivers’ three young children to see “Night at the Museum” while mom and dad watched the R-rated comedy. But the couple said that they used the movie as a teachable moment for their kids, even if the kids won’t see the film.
“We talked about the idea of freedom of speech,” Meredith said. “As long as you’re not encouraging harm — truly encouraging harm — to other people, everyone’s entitled to say what they want to say.”
Many others said they would have come to see the movie even without the controversy.
“I like their comedy, Seth Rogen and James Franco,” said Keith Young, 28, of Oakton. He wanted to see this more than anything else on offer — and today was the kind of day for going to a movie alone. “I’m a lonely Jew on Christmas.”
Kevin Altizer, 45, made the 35-mile drive from Culpeper, Va.
“I’m a huge fan of the two actors,” he said. “Any time that they’ve been together, it’s just been comedic genius.”
Sally Glodeck, 70, of Manassas gave the film a glowing review. It was very funny, she said — though she also learned some pretty grim information that she didn’t know about North Korea, such as the fact that the government showcases carefully controlled displays of wealth to impress foreigners while many residents go hungry.
She said she understood why the movie ticked off the North Korean government.
“If I was Kim Jong Un, I would be mad. He’s portrayed as a character, as a clown,” she said. “He comes over as a joke.”