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 of violence by Guardians of Peace, a computer hacking group that claimed responsibility for a destructive cyberattack on Sony last month.
The United States blamed the attacks on North Korea.
In China and South Korea, two countries that share a land border with North Korea, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to illegal video sharing sites to see the movie.
In the United States, movie theater managers and patrons alike said they believed there was nothing to fear from the threats, and the initial screenings on Thursday were uneventful.
But one of the online outlets that distributed the film ahead of its theatrical release, Microsoft Corp's Xbox Live, reported that users were experiencing problems getting connected on Thursday.
A hacking group called the Lizard Squad claimed it was behind disruptions at both Xbox and Sony Corp's PlayStation Networks, which was not carrying "The Interview." The group's claim could not be verified.
Neither Microsoft nor Sony offered explanations for the connectivity problems, though both services expected heavy use as consumers who received the devices for Christmas tried to log on all at once.
Extra network traffic on Xbox from users downloading "The Interview" may also have exacerbated connectivity problems for Microsoft.
The film also was available to U.S. online viewers through Google Inc's Google Play and YouTube Movie, 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, and the studio was not expected to have box office numbers from theaters before Friday morning.
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.
Although Cinema Village manager Lee Peterson said the New York Police Department planned to post officers outside the theater, there was no visible police presence outside or inside the venue for the first screening.
An afternoon screening at the Van Nuys Regency Theaters in the city's San Fernando Valley was two-thirds full and drew a diverse crowd ranging from teens to senior citizens, who laughed loudly throughout at Rogen and Franco's antics.
"It was much better than I thought it would be," said Carlos Royal, 45, a professor who came with a friend dressed in Santa hats and took selfies for the occasion in front of the theater's Hollywood sign marquis. "I wanted to support the U.S."
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.
In Asia, online audiences seemed to find the movie tedious.
"There is no drama and not much fun," said a blogger in South Korea. "It's all about forced comedy that turns you off. Couldn't they have done a better job making this movie?"
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.
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; Jack Kim and Kahyun Yang in Seoul; Adam Jourdan in Shanghai and the Shanghai newsroom; Writing by Leslie Adler; Editing by Howard Goller, Steve Orlofsky and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
By Luc Cohen and Alicia Avila