After Colorado Shootings, a Wake-Up Call for Theater Security

Experts say that theaters must train staff to spot suspicious activity and install CCTVs and alarms to try to avoid another event like Aurora.

In the aftermath of last week's mass-shooting at an Aurora, Colo., midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," the country’s major movie chains announced they were working with law enforcement to beef up security and cities, including New York and Los Angeles, posted police officers at screenings of the Batman sequel.

But their efforts, while meant to assuage fears of worried moviegoers, may only be a stopgap. It's a new and dangerous age, security experts tell TheWrap, and public venues like shopping malls, sports stadiums and, yes, movie theaters must rigorously assess the safeguards they are taking to protect patrons from becoming a target for a madman with an assault rifle.

“There is a high likelihood that an event like the shootings in Colorado will occur again simply because it has occurred before,” Jeffrey A. Slotnick, chairman of the Physical Security Council of ASIS, a trade group focused on industrial security needs, told TheWrap. “But let's look at the consequences. Sometimes even if something has a low likelihood of happening, the consequences are so significant if it does take place, that it warrants taking protective measures."

Getty ImagesJames Holmes, the alleged gunman behind the Colorado shootings, which left 12 dead and 58 wounded, has made many theater owners keenly aware that their old safeguards may now be outdated.  In many respects, movie theaters had remained immune to the kind of mass killings that have sprung up with shocking regularity in malls, restaurants, schools and other areas where large groups of people congregate.

Also read: Maine Police Investigating Possible Colorado Movie Theater Shooting Copycat

After the carnage in Colorado, that innocence has been exposed, and movie theaters — whether in large metropolitan areas or small towns — now may have to take the same sort of precautionary measures, from metal detectors to bag checks, that have become commonplace at airports and rock concerts.

Indeed, safety concerns have only intensified in the wake of a possible copycat plot in Maine and a recent series of altercations and incidents in movie theaters in places like California and Arizona. Thankfully no significant violence has transpired, but security experts tell TheWrap that after the Aurora killings, the exhibition industry must remain vigilant, because lack of awareness is no longer an excuse if another tragedy takes place in a darkened theater.

The response, however, should emerge from analysis and not raw emotion.

"The biggest lesson is not to overreact and make knee-jerk reactions,” Ken Trump, a school safety consultant, told TheWrap. “The Aurora incident is shocking, but you have to avoid taking a single incident and trying to overextend that into some type of major trend or major area of alarm for every movie theater in country,” We simply need to teach people to be alert and aware, but not scared.”

To their credit, most security experts say, theater owners have responded sensibly. AMC and Regal, the country’s two largest chains, are putting limits on the kind of costumes that audiences can wear to showings of fanboy favorites like “The Dark Knight Rises,” and a spokesman for Regal told TheWrap that the chain reserves the right to inspect bags. Cinemark, which owns the Aurora theater where the shootings took place, did not respond to a request for comment.

At industry screenings for test audiences, studios and market research firms are also stepping up their own security measures. Kevin Goetz, president of the market research firm Screen Engine, told TheWrap that given the Colorado incident, he will now have security guards posted at exits during screenings.

A spokesperson for the New York City Police Department did not respond to requests for comment, but a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman said there will continue to be an increased police presence on the streets, particularly near movie theaters, over the coming weekend.

"We're just doing extra patrols," a spokesman said. "Generally in an area near the theaters."

Getty ImagesAnd the Department of Homeland Security has reached out to members of the theatrical exhibition industry to discuss ways to reduce the potential for copycat incidents.

Also read: Colorado Theater Shootings: James Holmes Asks How 'Dark Knight Rises' Ends

The issue is that movie theaters must ensure that they do not become complacent after the publicity from the Aurora shooting subsides and the police protection goes away. They must fundamentally reevaluate how they monitor and respond to threats. After the Aurora shooting spree, the exhibition community not only has a moral duty, it has a legal obligation or it could expose itself to lawsuits in the future.

The most important step that theaters can take, experts say, is to train their staff to remain alert for suspicious patrons and activities. That is something that can be accomplished either through government-sponsored programs from the likes of the Department of Homeland Security or by hiring security consultants to train employees.

“A police presence might not be enough,” Todd McGhee, president of Protecting the Homeland Innovations and a trainer of the anti-terrorism unit at Boston's Logan International Airport, told TheWrap. “Frontline employees, regardless of their level of education, need to be trained to look for and report anomalies, because they are the one managing these theaters and locking up at night.”

McGhee and others say such clues can be found in anything from a person going into a crowded movie theater alone to a ticket-buyer at a midnight screening who is not exhibiting the signs of excitement or anticipation that often characterizes such an event. Not that these are crimes — after all plenty of people attend movies solo or respond more quietly to the midnight throngs — but security consultants say that even engaging a suspicious individual in conversation can go a long way toward letting a movie theater employee know if a fear is founded or not.

Aside from increased vigilance on the part of staff, security experts say that movie theaters should consider installing closed-circuit televisions and other surveillance devices, if they have not done so already. They may also want to search bags or ban large ones altogether, something they have a legal right to do because a movie theater is private property.

One lesson in particular from Aurora, experts say, is that exit doors should be alarmed and kept locked. During the Colorado shooting, the alleged killer James Holmes, reportedly propped open an exit door and armed himself with various guns that he had stored in his nearby car.

“Many theaters are using emergency doors for exiting after a movie is done,” Slotnick said. “They’re not going to be able to do that anymore. That may require funneling everybody back out through the front door, which is an inconvenience, but it eliminates the problem. They also should have door sensors that identify whenever a door is opened.”

But some theater owners question whether extra precautions are enough to prevent a deranged killer. Merrill Jarvis, owner of Merrill's Roxy Cinema in Burlington, Vt., said he already has cameras throughout his theaters and doesn't allow customers to take large bags or weapons into a movie. He plans to install an alarm system to let him know if an exit gets propped open, but he's not positive that would do much to stop a murderer in the unlikely event his theater is targeted.

"Aurora, Colo., was nominated by Forbes magazine as the ninth safest city in the U.S. — what can I do?" Jarvis asked. "How safe is anybody today?"

"If I see something strange, of course I'm going to react," he added. "But there's no right way to react to what happened last week."

Alexander C. Kaufman contributed to this report