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Sony's "The Interview" may have proven popular at theaters (despite middling reviews), but the film's innovative digital distribution was even more popular with pirates. After nebulous terrorist threats led major theaters to opt against showing the film on its intended Christmas Day opening, Sony distributed the comedy through several video-on-demand (VOD) services and independent theaters. The threats came after Sony Pictures was hacked last month, purportedly by a group calling itself "Guardians of Peace," or GOP. While some watchers heralded the studio's decision as a watershed moment for the film industry, the distribution experiment was not able to successfully guard against illegal downloads. Only 20 hours after its release, the movie saw more than 750,000 illegal copies downloaded, according to TorrentFreak. By Friday afternoon, the number had reached 1.7 million, with around 25 percent of the illegal downloads occurring in the United States, according to copyright intelligence firm Excipio.

The film was released simultaneously on YouTube, Google Play and Microsoft's Xbox Live on Dec. 24. But by the time it opened in independent theaters on Christmas Day, "The Interview" already boasted a widely available pirated version. The movie still grossed $1 million during its first day in theaters, Sony said Friday, but 1.7 million pirated downloads at $6 per online rental could mean as much as $10.5 million in lost revenue. According to documents leaked by hackers, the budget for "The Interview" totaled $44 million—with about $20,000 going to Beyoncé and Jay-Z for cameos.



— Sarah Whitten, CNBC, and Keith Wagstaff