Aurora Victim's Parents Respond to Warner Bros. Over 'Joker' Concerns: "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is"

Benjamin Rasmussen
Sandy Phillips is the mother of Jessica Ghawi, who was among the 12 killed on July 20, 2012, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd watching 'The Dark Knight Rises' in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

The Colorado family is hoping the studio won't donate to "candidates and lawmakers who stand in the way of gun reform," while Warner Bros. had said earlier this week, "Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora."

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter Jessica was killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting, are renewing their call to ask Warner Bros. to devote more resources to combating gun violence ahead of the studio's dark antihero film Joker, which is set to open Oct. 4.

On Thursday, the couple in a signed statement (crafted with gun control advocate Igor Volsky of Guns Down America) asked the studio to "put their money where their mouth is," days after family members of Aurora victims expressed their concern about the gun violence in Todd Phillips' R-rated film starring Joaquin Phoenix. 

The joint letter sent Tuesday from the five Aurora families, which was addressed to new Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff, said, "we are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe." That letter asked for parent company AT&T to cease donating to politicians who take money from the National Rifle Association and for Warners to make donations to groups that aid victims of gun violence.

In response, Warner Bros. said it took the situation seriously and sympathized with the parents. "Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies," the studio said Tuesday. "Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bipartisan legislation to address this epidemic." In 2012, Warner Bros. donated $1 million-plus to the charities supporting victims of the Aurora shooting.

On Thursday, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips said that while they are "pleased" with Warner Bros.' message, they once again asked for the studio to use its clout concerning gun violence and gun control.

“In its statement, Warner Bros. highlighted its past support for the survivors of gun violence and its rhetorical public call on lawmakers in Congress to pass stronger gun reform laws,” the couple said Thursday. “Let us be clear: Asking for change is a good first step, but it’s nowhere near enough. Warner Bros. and its parent company must put its money where its mouth is and announce that it will no longer provide political donations to candidates and lawmakers who stand in the way of gun reform.”

Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to request for comment on Thursday.

The letter from the Aurora survivors to the studio sparked a deeper conversation about Joker's exploration of the infamous DC Comics villain and its realistic gun violence, which is depicted in brutal, jarring scenes, and concerns that it could inspire real-life violence.

Joker star Phoenix and director Phillips have said that was never the intention of their complex character study. "The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message," Phillips told IGN in an interview.

The statement from the Phillips added: "In the United States, individuals who are motivated to commit mass murder can easily acquire weapons of war to carry out their deadly acts. This is why we are calling on Warner Bros. to use its power, leverage, and platform to work alongside us in making firearms significantly harder to get."

The couple's statement also mentions a threat of violence at a Joker screening, which was cited as a concern in an Army memo. On Monday, a memo was issued to soldiers and their families in Oklahoma about what Army officials perceived as a credible mass shooting threat targeting "an unknown movie theater" on Oct. 4 at a showing of Joker, Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman Chris Grey confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. The memo was not meant to be made public, he added. 

As of Thursday, the FBI was not aware of any actual credible threats concerning Joker.

"While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI is in touch with our law enforcement and private sector partners about the online posts. As always, we encourage the public to remain vigilant and to promptly report suspicious activity to law enforcement," FBI spokeswoman Ann Parrillo said in a statement.

To date, the National Association of Theatre Owners hasn’t been notified by the FBI or other government agencies of any credible threat regarding Joker, according to sources close to the trade organization. NATO, which is in close communication with the FBI on a regular basis, declined comment. 

Regal Cinemas on Thursday released this statement: “At Regal, we do not believe the content or the existence of any movie is a cause or a signal for violence. Nevertheless, although we do not comment on security protocols implemented by our theaters at any time, patron and employee safety is our foremost concern. In collaboration with NATO, we are in regular contact year-round with law enforcement so we have information to help make whatever security assessments they deem appropriate at all times.”

Pamela McClintock contributed additional reporting.