Movie Theater Dilemma: Beefed-Up Security Has Hollywood, Filmgoers on Edge

Moving too slowly, or too quickly in wake of shootings could worsen situation for studios and theater chains like Regal

Movie theaters are walking a fine line as they step up security in response to the recent deadly attacks at movie theaters in Lafayette, Louisiana and Nashville, Tennessee.

If theaters go too slowly to address safety concerns or wait for the government to act, they could face a massive backlash in the event of another multiplex tragedy. But if they move too quickly, they risk alienating skittish consumers with added security measures that could be expensive, don’t guarantee safety and could even bring added legal liability.

The first signs of retreat came this week when Regal Entertainment Group, the nation’s largest exhibition chain, announced that it would begin checking moviegoers’ bags, purses and backpacks before granting admission.

There are anecdotal reports from theaters with the policy in place, but Regal executives aren’t talking publicly beyond a statement on the company website and signs in theater windows. “We acknowledge that this procedure can cause some inconvenience and that it is not without flaws, but hope these are minor in comparison to increased safety,” the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company said on its website.

Regal rivals AMC Entertainment and Cinemark Theaters, the second- and third-largest theater chains, wouldn’t talk about whether they were considering following Regal’s lead. Even the National Association of Theaters Owners, which typically speaks for the sector, has stayed mum.

“This mustn’t be seen as a Second Amendment issue, or a political question,” Adam Levin, chairman and founder of cyber security firm IDT911, told TheWrap. “It’s literally a matter of life and death, and those involved need to accept their responsibility and work for a collaborative and comprehensive solution.”

Levin cited Universal Pictures’ willingness to pitch in on the cost of heightened security last weekend at theaters screening “Straight Outta Compton,” its biopic of the controversial gangsta rap group N.W.A. “That’s the sort of cooperative effort that this issue is going to require,” he said.

Security experts are uncertain about the effectiveness of Regal’s bag-check policy — especially since it’s unclear how employees are being trained and whether the plan could itself open up the chain to greater legal liability in the event of another tragedy.

In addition, patrons have already suggested that the chain may have an ulterior motive for the policy. “They’re just making sure I don’t bring my own popcorn in,” one bag-checked customer said outside a Regal theater in Boston.

The concern over safety comes at a difficult time for the exhibition industry, which has been squeezed financially despite the fact that this year’s box office grosses are on track to break records.

Whether stepping up security comes by government mandate or competitive industry pressure, any new efforts could prove costly — particularly for smaller, independent theater owners. In addition to the cost of top-line equipment like metal detectors, there are additional challenges in hiring and training staff on screening procedures.

But the industry has been on the defensive since the 2012 massacre at a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, in which James Holmes shot dead 12 people and injured 70 others.

There have been two more deadly incidents this summer: In July, a gunman shot himself to death after killing two people at a screening of “Trainwreck” in Lafayette, La.,  And earlier this month, in Nashville, Tenn., a man was shot and killed in Nashville, Tenn., after he attacked moviegoers with pepper spray and a hatchet.

Of course, many in Hollywood argue that safety concerns are not restricted to multiplexes despite the recent incidents. “This is a public issue,” one studio insider told TheWrap. “Security in public gathering places is a grocery store issue, a school and church and military base issue, as much as it is a movie theater issue.”

One studio executive admitted to feeling some frustration over this situation. “The fact is, we could seal our theaters in steel and concrete, and someone willing to lose everything for their crazy cause could still get in and do horrible things,” he said.