US President Barack Obama applauds Sony decision to show The Interview

The Interview stars Seth Rogen (centre) and James Franco (right), shown here in a cinema still from The Interview with Diana Bang, hailed Sony's reversal of its original decision to cancel the film's showing and to allow its limited release on Thursd
The Interview stars Seth Rogen (centre) and James Franco (right), shown here in a cinema still from The Interview with Diana Bang, hailed Sony's reversal of its original decision to cancel the film's showing and to allow its limited release on Thursday. -- PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

WASHINGTON (REUTERS/AFP) - President Barack Obama is pleased Sony has decided to release The Interview in some theatres, after earlier bowing to pressure from a cyberattack blamed on North Korea, the White House said on Tuesday.

"The president applauds Sony's decision to authorize screenings of the film," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement.

"As the president made clear, we are a country that believes in free speech, and the right of artistic expression. The decision made by Sony and participating theatres allows people to make their own choices about the film, and we welcome that outcome," Schultz said.

Sony Pictures said Tuesday it will screen the madcap comedy in some US theatres on Christmas Day, a dramatic U-turn after its widely criticised decision to cancel the film following a cyber-assault blamed on North Korea.

Just six days after cancelling the film's opening, in a move decried as a defeat for freedom of speech, Sony chief executive Michael Lynton confirmed that the movie would now be shown in theatres on Thursday.

"We have never given up on releasing The Interview and we're excited our movie will be in a number of theaters on Christmas Day," said Lynton, adding that the movie would be released on more "platforms" in the future.

The decision was the latest twist to a crisis which has engulfed Sony and The Interview, a screwball romp about a fictional plot by two US journalists embarking on a mission to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

North Korea has been accused by the United States government of launching a crippling cyber-attack on Sony which saw the release of a trove of embarrassing emails, scripts and other internal communications, including information about salaries and employee health records.

Pyongyang has repeatedly denied involvement in the hack but has applauded the actions of a shadowy online group which claimed responsibility for the cyber attack, the self-styled "Guardians of Peace". Pressure to withdraw the film overwhelmed Sony last week after a series of major US theatre chains said they would not show the film.

It followed chilling threats by the "Guardians of Peace" which suggested theaters screening the movie would be targeted with attacks.

But Sony's cancellation was condemned throughout the entertainment industry as a capitulation in the face of intimidation.

Even Mr Obama, who has accused North Korea of waging "cyber-vandalism" against Sony, said the studio had made a mistake by scrapping the film.

"We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States," Mr Obama said.

Comedian Seth Rogen, the movie's co-director, lead actor and screenwriter, hailed Sony's startling volte-face.

"The people have spoken! Freedom has prevailed! Sony didn't give up! The Interview will be shown at theaters willing to play it on Xmas day!" he wrote on Twitter.

Co-star James Franco sounded an equally jubilant note, thanking Obama for his support for the film while poking fun at the US leader for mistakenly referring to him as "James Flacco" during a press conference last week.

"CELEBRATING!!!!! "The Interview" starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco saved by President Obacco! I MEAN PRESIDENT OBAMA!!!!! Sorry!!! ?????," the actor wrote on his Instagram feed.

Though denying involvement in the brazen Nov 24 cyber attack on Sony, Pyongyang had hailed it as a "righteous deed". The North's top military body, the National Defence Commission, slammed Sony for "abetting a terrorist act while hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership," according to state news agency KCNA.

On Monday, North Korea was cut off from the Internet for more than nine hours, triggering speculation that the isolated dictatorship had been targeted by United States authorities in retaliation for the Sony crisis.

The country's Internet access was cut again on Tuesday, according to a US Internet research group that has been tracking North Korea's online activity.