By Luc Cohen and Alicia Avila
NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES, Dec 25 (Reuters) - "The Interview," the Sony Pictures film about a fictional plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, opened in more than 300 movie theaters across the United States on Christmas Day, drawing many sell-out audiences and statements by patrons that they were championing freedom of expression.
Co-directors Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, who also co-stars in the low-brow comedy with James Franco, surprised moviegoers by appearing at the sold-out 12:30 a.m. PT (0830 GMT) screening of the movie at a theater in Los Angeles, where they briefly thanked fans for their support.
Sony Pictures this week backtracked from its original decision to cancel the release of the $44 million film after major U.S. theater chains pulled out because of threats by the group claiming responsibility for a destructive cyberattack on Sony last month.
The United States blamed the attacks on North Korea.
Movie theater managers and patrons alike said they believed there was nothing to fear, and the initial screenings on Thursday were uneventful.
The audience at the first screening of the film in New York City, at the Cinema Village in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, remained silent during a scene showing the death of Kim Jong Un in the downing of his helicopter.
Matt Rosenzweig, 60, of Manhattan, said the moments that drew the most applause had to do with the idea of acting against censorship rather than animosity toward North Korea.
The film is available online in the United States on Google Inc's Google Play and YouTube Movie and to customers of Microsoft's Xbox Video, as well as on a Sony website, www.seetheinterview.com. It can be seen in Canada on the Sony site and Google Canada's website.
A Sony spokeswoman on Thursday said she had no figures on the number of downloads so far or on how well the movie was doing at the box office.
A spokesman for Microsoft also said he had no information yet on downloads and declined to say if the company had taken any special security measures or stepped up customer support.
"Of course, it's safe to say holiday season is always a very busy time of year for any consumer electronics company," Sean McCarthy, general manager of Microsoft's Xbox Product Services, wrote in an email. "So we work hard to ensure the stability of our infrastructure when so many consoles are activating for the first time."
Cinema Village manager Lee Peterson, who declined to provide details of security precautions, said the New York Police Department planned to have officers outside the theater. He said he had also heard from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
There was no visible police presence outside or inside the Cinema Village for the first screening.
In Los Angeles, where the film drew a sell-out crowd for the 12:30 a.m. showing, people who held cups of warm cider as they waited for the theater to open said they came to show support for freedom of speech and freedom of choice.
The movie, which is playing in theaters in major metropolitan areas as well as in smaller cities ranging from Bangor, Maine, to Jasper, Indiana, features Rogen and Franco as journalists who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean leader.
Sony decided to release the film after U.S. President Barack Obama, as well as such Hollywood luminaries as George Clooney and Republicans and Democrats in Washington, raised concerns that Hollywood was setting a precedent of self-censorship.
In Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, where the first screening at 11:45 a.m. PT was only half full, some filmgoers were blunt about their reasons for attending.
"You need to stand up for these things," said Dennis Lavalle, an acting teacher who came with his daughter. "And I am not going to let a country that regularly depicts in video the nuclear Armageddon of this country and that's OK, and we can't make a satirical picture about something that is not going to happen."
MOVIE FANS HAPPY
The audience in Manhattan exited the theater to a throng of network TV cameras and a crowd of people lined up for the next showing.
"It was more serious, the satire, than I was expecting," said Simone Reynolds, who saw the film while visiting from London. "There's a message for America in there too about America's foreign policy."
North Korea has called the film an "act of war."
Most fans simply called "The Interview" a funny movie.
Ken Jacowitz, a 54-year-old librarian from the New York borough of Queens, called it "a funny film made by funny people." He had a message for North Korea and the hackers: "You have given this movie whole new lives."
(Additional reporting by Mary Milliken, Eric Kelsey and Jed Horowitz; Writing by Leslie Adler; Editing by Howard Goller and Steve Orlofsky)