By Eric Kelsey and Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sony Pictures said on Tuesday it will release "The Interview" to a limited number of theaters on Dec. 25, less than a week after it canceled the comedy's release following a devastating cyberattack blamed on North Korea.
Sony's about-face came after it absorbed withering criticism, even from President Barack Obama for its decision last week to pull the film, which was seen not only as self-censorship in Hollywood but also caving into hackers working for North Korea.
The studio said it had pulled the Seth Rogen-James Franco film about a fictional plot to assassinate North Korea leader Kim Jong Un after major theater chains backed out owing to security concerns.
"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," Sony Pictures Chief Executive Michael Lynton said in a statement.
"While we hope this is only the first step of the film's release, we are proud to make it available to the public and to have stood up to those who attempted to suppress free speech."
Approval from the White House came swiftly.
"As the president made clear, we are a country that believes in free speech, and the right of artistic expression," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. "The decision made by Sony and participating theaters allows people to make their own choices about the film, and we welcome that outcome."
Franco and Rogen, who co-directed and starred in the film, broke their silence after Sony made the announcement.
"The people have spoken! Freedom has prevailed!" Rogen said, while Franco added, "VICTORY!!!!!!! The PEOPLE and THE PRESIDENT have spoken!!!"
It was unclear how many theaters would screen "The Interview," but the release could be accompanied by a simultaneous video-on-demand offering of the comedy. Sony was not able to confirm reports about that possibility.
Sony Pictures, which had said that a limited showing of the $44 million film was out of question, came under pressure to release the movie after Obama said last Friday that the studio "made a mistake" by bowing to intimidation. Independent movie theaters, top Hollywood players such as George Clooney, and media pundits all urged Sony to reconsider.
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Greg Laemmle, the president of Los Angeles cinema chain Laemmle Theatres, said that they will screen the film at one venue on Dec. 31 and that Sony told them of a plan to have the movie play on video-on-demand beginning on Dec. 25.
He said the family-owned company will take extra security precautions for the screening, without elaborating.
The cyberattack, which began last month, crippled Sony Pictures' computer system and led to an embarrassing leak of internal emails and sensitive documents.
The hackers, operating under the moniker Guardians of Peace, made unspecified threats to theaters planning to show the film. They demanded that Sony cancel the film's release.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has pinned the cyberattack on North Korea, which had protested the film as far back as June. North Korea has denied it is behind the attack.
It was unclear how many theaters would be allowed to screen "The Interview" and if major movie chains that had decided not to open the film would join the group of authorized exhibitors.
Among the independent theaters that will screen the film on Dec. 25 is the Alamo Drafthouse in Texas, one of the most vocal supporters of the movie's release. Major chains, including Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Theatres, did not respond to a request on whether they will screen the film.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Christian Plumb)