LOS ANGELES (AFP) - A fictional plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un drew throngs of moviegoers on Thursday, as it became an unlikely symbol of free speech thanks to hacker threats that nearly scuppered its release.
The future of Sony's The Interview had been in doubt after the entertainment giant said it was cancelling the release following an embarrassing cyber attack on its corporate network and threats against patrons.
But massive support for its release, including from the White House, saw it open in theatres in the end.
And it was more than 300 independently owned theaters that took up the mantle, with some moviegoers dressed in patriotic red, white and blue or saying they were driven to see the film by their belief in free speech. "It's controversial so I want to see it. I think it's something important, showing the freedom in the United States," said Mr Adolfo Loustalot as he queued up to buy tickets outside Los Feliz 3 cinema in Los Angeles.
The film was also available on a variety of digital platforms, including Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft's Xbox Video and on a Sony website.
Star Seth Rogen and co-director Evan Goldberg made a surprise appearance at one of the first showings in Los Angeles just after midnight, when they thanked moviegoers and theaters for pushing to get the film out.
"We thought this might not happen at all," Rogen told a cheering crowd. The theatre was near Rogen and Goldberg's homes, the men said.
"The fact that it's showing here and that you guys all came out," Goldberg said, "is super f**king exciting," Rogen finished.
Many of the biggest US movie theatre chains had got cold feet about showing the film after anonymous online threats, prompting Sony to pull the film.
The United States has blamed the Sony cyber attack on North Korea, and President Barack Obama has threatened reprisals.
But Sony came under fire from Mr Obama and free speech advocates for canceling the release.
"I probably would not be seeing this movie, and certainly not today, but with all the controversies I think it was important to come out and watch it," said Mr Jeff Crowley, 49, seeing the movie at a sold-out independent theater in the capital Washington.
"To me it was more about the precedent that was setting in... we don't want all these studios afraid of what they can say the next time around."
Mr Josh Levin, a co-owner of the West End Cinema that often screens more sophisticated films, said he was showing the movie on principle and that it had been warmly received.
"We sold out all our tickets for today in less than one hour. We are sold out for tomorrow and Saturday," Levin said.
The madcap, irreverent R-rated comedy was also available online for US and Canadian viewers starting Wednesday.
"After discussing all the issues, Sony and Google agreed that we could not sit on the sidelines and allow a handful of people to determine the limits of free speech in another country - however silly the content might be," Google chief legal officer David Drummond said in a blog post.
The movie was being distributed on Google's YouTube for a US$5.99 (S$7.92) rental fee, on the Google Play app for Android devices and on a dedicated website, seetheinterview.com.
The Google search engine also promoted the film on its homepage.
On vacation in Hawaii, Mr Obama, who had previously called Sony's move to cancel showings a mistake, told reporters he was "glad it's being released".
A bawdy, expletive-laden tale full of sexual innuendo and scatological humor, the film starring Rogen and James Franco is a silly, low-brow romp about a CIA plot to assassinate Mr Kim.