Large crowds expected for Star Wars movie raise issue of theater security

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 136 views 

“Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens “opens in theaters Thursday night (Dec. 17), and is already poised to break long-standing box office records. But with that distinction comes concerns about theater security.

Theater shooting concerns have spiked since James Eagan Holmes walked into an Aurora, Colorado, Century Theater on July 20, 2012, and opened fire on 140 unsuspecting moviegoers. He killed 12 and injured 70. Earlier this year, he was convicted on multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder and sentenced to 12 life sentences plus an additional 3,318 years.

On July 23, 2015, John Russell Houser entered a Grand 16 multiplex in Lafayette, Louisiana, and shot 11, killing two and injuring nine before turning the gun on himself.

The two stories are high-profile cases that represent the danger movie audiences now face, and with the latest in the long-running sci-fi fantasy franchise opening soon, Talk Business & Politics reached out to area theaters, a professional security agency, and the Fort Smith Police Department to ask the question, “What if it happens here?”

The findings: it’s on everyone’s minds, and few want to talk about it.

The first showings of The Force Awakens will begin at 7 p.m. the night before its official release date (Dec. 18).

Nationally, the film has broken a number of pre-sale records with telling Deadline it has sold “more than double the number of advance tickets to the recent blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron (which took in $191.2 million in its opening weekend in 4,276 theaters), 20% more than Jurassic World ($208.8 million in 4,274 theaters), and a third more than the last Star Wars installment, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.”

Fandango also acknowledged that it is the “biggest advance ticket-selling movie” in the company’s history.

A representative for the Carmike Cinemas location in Fort Smith — a staff leader, who did not wish to be named — said the film has already broken every pre-sale record in the site’s history. The initial showing is sold out (160 tickets) and theater patrons have already gotten a good start on filling up the second theater and the 3-D screening at the time of this story.

According to the staff leader, if the Fort Smith location sees an overrun, Carmike gives its management the option of canceling some other showings and devoting extra screens to the film. To keep order, the rep acknowledged Carmike will have a local security company on site with armed guards, many of whom, he thought, were “retired police officers.”

The rep “wasn’t for sure” and couldn’t give the name of the security company, but said Malco took similar precautions. The individual also noted patrons would be limited in what they can carry into the theater.

“Generally, purses are okay, but backpacks, baby bags, those types of things will get checked,” he said.

Talk Business & Politics was able to confirm that Professional Security Inc., is the company that handles security for the Fort Smith Carmike, but that “all other inquiries would have to be handled through the theater itself,” said Tom Honeycutt, the company’s president. The Fort Smith Malco also declined questions, directing all inquiries through its corporate offices.

Karen Scott, director of marketing for Malco Theatres, said that “sales are strong, but tickets are still available for opening weekend” and that Cosplayers, or the fans who like to dress up as their favorite characters, “are welcome to attend in costume, but face coverings, masks and/or face paint, as well as simulated weapons, including light sabers and blasters are not permitted.”

Other questions: what security measures is Malco taking to protect moviegoers, and in what ways, if any, are these precautions different from a normal box office weekend?

“No comment,” Scott said.

While theater safety appears to be a touchy subject – at least to the major chains in Fort Smith – it is likely a subject that is here to stay.

“Theater security is going to be a hot-button issue for quite some time,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst for the tracking service Exhibitor Relations in comments to USA Today following the Lafayette shooting. “That’s a good thing. Safety is the number one concern for people at any audience event.”

But how do you stay safe from an armed assailant while packed into a theater screening room with more than 100 other people? Major Dean Pitts, with the Fort Smith Police Department, said one of the first things to do is “be aware and pay attention to your surroundings.”

“Look for suspicious activity of any kind. For instance, if it’s warm weather and someone’s wearing a long coat, that’s not a normal thing. People who are acting very nervous when they shouldn’t be, unusual behavior. A lot of times in an active shooter scenario, the assailant will be very tense or stressed or angry,” Pitts said.

In addition to being aware of one’s surroundings, Pitts highlights three main choices that you will have.

“One, try to escape,” Pitts explained. “If you’re close to an exit, you can get out pretty quickly, and remember that just like with an airplane, sometimes the closest exit may be behind you. (Escape) is your best option, but the problem with a theater is that you may have a lot of people leaving at once, and very often injuries can occur as a result.”

Secondly, if you cannot escape, take cover. With a theater, the best bet for doing that would be to stay close to the ground and not draw any attention to yourself from the shooter.

He continued: “A lot of times, a murderer or criminal – if someone appears alert – will pass them over and look for an easier target. But an active shooter has already decided on his targets, and it can be difficult to prevent in that situation. That’s why being alert to your surroundings is the most important thing you can do. It gives you the earliest opportunity to react if something does go wrong. People oblivious to their surroundings are victims.”

The last option that Pitts gives – and more of a last-case scenario, he admits – is that “you may have to fight them.” He acknowledged that it’s “last-case” because most theaters forbid the carry of firearms, so “if you are following what they request, you probably won’t have one.”

In that situation, tackling the shooter if in position to do so or striking them with an object that “has some weight to it” can derail an attack. “Fighting back is your last option,” he reiterated, noting that even if you possess a state-issued license for concealed carry, you are breaking the law to have a firearm in a business that forbids it.

“Any business owner has the lawful right to say you cannot bring a firearm into their business,” he said. “A concealed carry permit does not override the rights of the business owner.”

With Malco and Carmike tight-lipped on their security plans for opening night, Pitts was able to provide some peace of mind for anxious Star Wars fans. He wasn’t aware of any extra theater patrols planned from the Fort Smith Police Department for opening weekend, but he did reveal that major theater chains throughout the area often employ off-duty police officers for added security.

“For as long as I can remember, we’ve had off-duty officers do it on a pretty regular basis. It’s not unusual to go into a theater and see an armed officer in uniform,” he said.

The relationship is one funded by the theater or business in need of security, and positions are typically offered to officers through an internal software program via the FSPD. Even though the officer is working for the business as a private security officer, “they are still endowed with the authority of a law enforcement officer,” Pitts said. Where it gets tricky is when the commission of a crime is involved and the officer makes an arrest.

“If they do something actually within their legal duty – they make an arrest or become involved in stopping a criminal activity – they’re doing their job as a police officer and they will start being paid by the police department. … It’s tricky, but more often than not, nothing ever happens — just them being there is a deterrent.”

Pitts said that he understands “anyone being uneasy.”

“Once the movie starts, it’s dark in there and you can’t see as well. Is it a possibility (that something could happen)? Yes. But is it a probability? No.”

Pitts reemphasized being “alert of your surroundings,” but also noted that it was important not to let the possibility affect your enjoyment of the show.

“If it does, then they’ve won, haven’t they?”