Metal Detectors At Movie Theaters? Not Likely

The Grand Movie Theater Exterior - H 2015

The Grand Movie Theater Exterior - H 2015

Three dead in another movie-house shooting, but insiders say better security training (and gun control?) will be the strategy over adding costly, time-consuming screening devices: "I don't want to feel like I'm walking into a fortified structure."

This story first appeared in the August 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In the aftermath of the July 23 shooting deaths of two women and the injuring of nine others at The Grand 16 multiplex in Lafayette, La., many have questioned whether metal detectors could have prevented John Russell Houser from entering the 7:10 p.m. screening of Trainwreck with a .40-caliber semiautomatic weapon and opening fire. But while metal detectors and other security measures temporarily have been deployed through the years in some big-city theaters playing gang-related films, exhibi­tors are nearly unanimous in opposition to such costly tactics.

Absent a widespread surge in violence, "It does not seem like there is an urgency to resort to such measures," says Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian, noting that the Lafayette shooting did not noticeably affect moviegoing during the July 24 weekend. Instead, he says, "Theater managers will most certainly be more aware, vigilant and conscious of the safety of their patrons."

Why the reluctance to take major steps? Tellingly, neither the MPAA, National Association of Theatre Owners chief John Fithian nor any of the major exhibitors had commented publicly on theater safety at press time. But many insiders privately cite increased costs and say adding metal detectors would detract from the moviegoing experience. Instead, most say gun control is the real problem (concealed weapons are allowed in Lafayette), and Hollywood figures have become more willing to state opinions on that issue. Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan, echoing many on social media, tweeted: "Theater shooter reportedly bought the gun legally despite history of mental illness. NRA wins."

Security consultant Michael Dorn does not believe metal detec­tors are a practical solution. The cost of the equipment is only about $5,000, but personnel to run a proper checkpoint can cost $250,000 a year in smaller markets and $1 million in big cities. "Also, it's very slow," he says. "You will have to tell your customers to come a half-hour early to wait in a security line." Dorn recommends theaters instead hire more security personnel and better train employees "how to be aware of suspicious activity and spot a weapon." Todd McGhee, another security consultant, believes armed security details are the best course of action. "Metal detectors would impede commerce," he says. "If I'm going out on a date or am with my family, I don't want to feel like I'm walking into a fortified structure. And it creates a choke point."

Some larger cinemas in big cities, including the AMC Empire 25 in New York and the AMC Universal CityWalk 19, hire off-duty police officers to provide security. During the July 24 weekend, on-duty police throughout the U.S. were deployed to help watch theaters (and sources say some theaters plan to increase security for Universal's N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, out Aug. 14). Cinemas, as they did after the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., also are being more vigilant about checking bags.

Security was a larger issue in Aurora because James Holmes snuck out an emergency exit at a Cinemark-owned theater and returned to a screening of The Dark Knight Rises with multiple weapons, killing 12 and injuring 70 others. Holmes was convicted July 16 and is eligible for the death penalty. Civil lawsuits against Cinemark for allegedly not providing proper security are pending.

But in Lafayette, a police patrol already was on duty at the multiplex and quickly intercepted Houser, who then killed himself. "Theaters are doing their best," says Dergarabedian, "and to be fair, it is really tough to be prepared for the illogical, violent act of a mentally unstable person hell-bent on wreaking havoc in a public space."