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This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Challenge was unprecedented: The explosive gunfire that broke out in theater nine of Aurora, Colo.’s Century 16 multiplex at 12:38 a.m. MDT on Friday, July 20 resulted in the largest mass shooting in American history. It took place just as Warner Bros. was launching The Dark Knight Rises in 4,404 theaters in North America, the second-largest domestic opening ever.
Within two hours of the shooting, as the enormity of the tragedy came into focus, the studio’s top executives began trading calls, beginning a series of internal conversations that would continue through the early morning hours until the key players — among them Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman and CEO Barry Meyer, motion picture group president Jeff Robinov, worldwide marketing head Sue Kroll, domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman and his international counterpart Veronika Kwan Vandenberg — assembled at the studio by 10 a.m. to begin a meeting that would last through most of the day. Theirs was a delicate balancing act: How to respond with extraordinary sensitivity to a national tragedy as the grim news was still unfolding, while also protecting the commercial prospects of a mammoth summer movie. The studio and its financial partner, Legendary Pictures, had invested $250 million even before marketing/distribution costs of more than $150 million.
“Institutions like movie studios get in trouble not because they do things they shouldn’t do, but because they don’t do things they should do. On that count, Warners handled themselves beautifully,” says Allan Mayer, a crisis management expert at 42West. “You don’t want to underreact, but you don’t want to overreact, either.”
The studio never considered shutting down the release of the movie, a hugely complicated task. Instead, Warners execs focused first on issuing a statement expressing sorrow and sympathy for the victims, which was released shortly around 5 a.m. PDT. Warners also moved quickly to cancel the movie’s Paris premiere later that day, which was to have included director Christopher Nolan and his cast. (Almost simultaneously, it also decided to scrub premieres in Mexico City and Tokyo.)
Another problem immediately arose: Warners had just sent theaters a trailer for Gangster Squad, scheduled for a Sept. 7 release, that included a scene of a shootout in Grauman’s Chinese. It quickly pulled back the trailer, and now is considering rewrites and reshoots that could eventually force that movie’s postponement.
That afternoon, the studio also announced that in view of the situation, it would not announce box-office grosses that weekend. Other studios quickly followed suit. Business-as-usual was on hold.
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