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How Going to the Movies Will Change

Enhanced Security

With attendance already wobbly, will theater owners spend millions to ramp up security and calm a nervous public?

July 20 was supposed to be a banner day for the 5,722 theaters in the United States -- including Cinemark's Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colo. The Dark Knight Rises was poised to do gargantuan business, providing a much-needed boost to a mixed summer at the box office.

Instead, the massacre during a midnight screening of the Batman pic left 12 dead and dozens injured, marking the worst act of violence ever to happen inside a U.S. cinema and sending exhibitors scrambling to ramp up security amid renewed fears that Americans -- already visiting theaters less frequently -- will have another reason to watch movies at home. "This could have a profound impact," confesses one studio executive.

To boot, a rash of unnerving incidents at theaters in the days following the shooting -- in one instance, a New Jersey theater was evacuated after someone opened the emergency exit door -- only increases the pressure on exhibitors.

Within hours of the Aurora shooting, exhibitors were carefully monitoring all exit doors (suspect James Holmes is said to have paid for a ticket and later retrieved his weapons via a fire exit) and hiring security guards, in addition to banning face masks and, in the case of Regal, checking purses. In larger cities, police lent a hand. But heightened security adds costs at a time when ticket prices are on the rise and theater stocks remain vulnerable (Cinemark, Regal and AMC were down about 5 percent in the days following the shooting amid a general market sell-off). Says a veteran distributor: "How can you afford that? Will the cost be passed along to the consumer?"

Mike Dorn, a security consultant in Macon, Ga., says hiring armed security officers and training employees to flag unusual behavior are likely the best answer. He cautions against using metal detectors and X-ray screeners, which could cost a theater as much as $1.5 million a year to operate including personnel. For Cinemark, which runs 298 U.S. theaters, that could cost $447 million if every theater was equipped -- not to mention annoying customers who would be subjected to airport-style screenings. If the machines aren't manned properly, there's little point. "This happened with schools," says Dorn. "They spent hundreds of millions of dollars with little or no improvement, and guns still got through."

Some sports and performing arts venues (including L.A.'s Staples Center) use metal detectors, but they are in a better position because there is usually only one event per day, rather than multiple showings. Dorn says armed guards, in contrast, are a viable solution. "This is a great deterrent and calms the patrons," Dorn says. But that's not cheap, either; each guard is paid $25 to $50 an hour. At the AMC Century City 15, there were two security guards outside the theater during the July 20-22 weekend, and two were visible inside the lobby.

There is no consensus as to whether the Aurora killings will alter moviegoing habits on a mass scale. Dark Knight Rises grossed a stellar $160.9 million in its opening weekend, the third best debut of all time. Insiders believe the tragedy cost the film $10 million to $20 million in business, although Warner Bros. is hoping to make up the difference in the long run. The family market was hardest hit as parents thought twice about taking kids to the movies. Ice Age: Continental Drift fell off a steep 56 percent in its second weekend. Attendance for Brave also fell off more than it typically would, suggesting the psychological impact of the shooting on parents is very real.

The National Association of Theater Owners, led by John Fithian, said in a statement, "Guest safety is and will continue to be a priority for theater owners." In addition to working with local law enforcement authorities, exhibitors -- via NATO -- have received a security checklist from the Department of Homeland Security that includes such measures as making sure all employees are versed in first aid.

One exhibitor notes that people are resilient -- consider how quickly they returned to air travel after 9/11 -- and that the real problem isn't theater security, it's "someone who was mentally ill and had access to too many weapons and ammunition." Many took heart when Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged his constituents to see Dark Knight Rises to prove their lives wouldn't be dictated by a deranged gunman. His words didn't go unheeded -- an AMC multiplex in Aurora turned in the fifth-best gross of any Denver theater. Says the exhibitor: "We are a country that rebounds. What $160 million says is that most people refused to be imprisoned by this event."

AN UNCERTAIN FATE FOR CENTURY 16

No theater circuit in the United States has ever faced the decision Cinemark must now make: Whether to reopen its Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colo., or keep it closed for good. As of press time, Cinemark hadn't made its intentions known, and the theater remains dark. Insiders say the company is sure to work with community leaders in reaching a decision. Where it Ranks: Century 16 is the 14th busiest theater in Denver and No. 931 in the country (out of 5,722). Translation: The multiplex is a solid performer, bringing in $2.2 million in ticket sales so far this year. Shutting down Century 16 -- adjacent to the prospering Town Center mall -- would cost Cinemark millions. -- P.M.