12/25/2014 04:02 EST | Updated 02/24/2015 05:59 EST

The Interview screenings popular across the U.S.

Critics and early viewers agree that The Interview is less than a masterpiece. But thanks to threats from hackers that nearly derailed its release, it has become an event.

Hundreds of U.S. theatres Thursday, from The Edge 8 in Greenville, Alabama, to Michael Moore's Bijou by the Bay in Traverse City, Mich., made special holiday arrangements for the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Sony Pictures had initially called off the release after major theatre chains dropped the movie that was to have opened on as many as 3,000 screens.

But with U.S. President Obama among others criticizing the decision, Sony officials changed their minds. The Interview became available on a variety of digital platforms Wednesday afternoon, including Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft's Xbox Video and a separate Sony website. Meanwhile, Sony and independent theatres agreed to release it in over 300 venues on Christmas.

"We are taking a stand for freedom, said theatre manager Lee Peterson of the Cinema Village East in Manhattan, where most of Thursday's seven screenings had sold out by early afternoon. "We want to show the world that Americans will not be told what we can or cannot watch. Personally, I am not afraid."

Some venues showing The Interview were more likely to feature documentaries about North Korea than a low-brow comedy about it. At the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, New Mexico, owned by Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, the schedule also includes the Spanish art-house release Flamenco, the locally made The Twilight Angel and an Italian film festival. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which begins screening The Interview on Friday, will soon be hosting a tribute to Force Majeure director Ruben Ostlund of Sweden and a documentary about the late Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.

A real-life Hollywood satire

The back story of The Interview has itself played out like a Hollywood satire, in which a cartoonish farce distracts from some of the holiday season's most prestigious films: Selma, the drama about the 1965 civil rights march; Angelina Jolie's adaptation of the best-selling Second World War story Unbroken; and the all-star, big-screen version of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

The possibility of violence was taken more seriously by the movie industry than by government officials. Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying that there were no credible threats. Meanwhile, Darrell Foxworth, a special agent for the FBI in San Diego, said Wednesday the agency was sharing information with independent movie theatre owners showing The Interview out of "an abundance of caution" and to educate them about cyber threats and what help the FBI can offer.

Kim Song, a North Korean diplomat to the United Nations, condemned the release Wednesday, calling the movie an "unpardonable mockery of our sovereignty and dignity of our supreme leader." But Kim said North Korea will likely limit its response to condemnation, with no "physical reaction."

A few dozen people lined up early outside Tempe, Arizona's Valley Art theatre, where tickets for all five showings on Thursday had sold out. "There are a lot of people going crazy over (the controversy), it's bigger than the movie," said Omar Khiel, 20.

At the Cinema Village theater in Manhattan, the 10 a.m. screening was near capacity. Derek Karpel, a 34-year-old attorney, said that "as many people as possible should go see it. In fact, the government should subsidize tickets to make that possible."

But he didn't say that The Interview was a great movie.

"No one should go into expecting it to be a serious commentary on politics," he said. "But it's fun. People should go."