How Do Theaters Plan to Handle Security for the 'Star Wars' Opening Weekend?

Stormtroopers make their entrance at the Hollywood premiere of The Force Awakens.EXPAND
Stormtroopers make their entrance at the Hollywood premiere of The Force Awakens.

When a Village Voice film critic attended a recent press screening of the Will Ferrell–Mark Wahlberg buddy comedy Daddy's Home at the Regal E-Walk theater in Times Square, he was asked to open his bag so it could be checked. The attendant was looking not just for the usual innocuous stuff — say, food or drink brought in from outside. He was also on the lookout for dangerous items — like a gun, or a bomb.

In August, Regal Cinemas, the nation’s largest movie theater chain, began checking bags and changed its admittance procedures amid growing fears of violent attacks and mass shootings. And indeed, over the last few years there's been a rash of attacks targeting multiplexes. There was the shooting last summer during a screening of the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck that left three dead at the Grand 16 theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. In August, a man armed with a hatchet and a pellet gun attacked an audience at a theater in Nashville before being shot and killed by police. In 2012, orange-haired gunman James Holmes opened fire at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, killing twelve and injuring several others. Holmes was sentenced to twelve life terms (plus 3,318 additional years) earlier this year.

"Security issues have become a daily part of our lives in America," a statement announces on the Regal Entertainment Group's website. Regal's corporate offices did not respond to requests for comment, but the company "wants our customers and staff to feel comfortable and safe when visiting or working in our theaters," according to its website. "In that regard, as a general rule all backpacks, packages, and large bags of any kind are subject to inspection."

The company operates ten theaters in New York City, including in Times Square and Union Square, and owns more than five hundred and sixty theaters nationwide.

Other local theaters have taken precautions by implementing bag-check policies and posting notices on their front doors. Matthew Gualco, an employee at Cobble Hill Cinemas in Brooklyn, says the theater has notices taped on the front door and displayed on a screen informing guests that bags will be searched. When asked if he and others who work at the theater are concerned about possible violence, he says, “Not really. It is what it is. We’ll continue to check bags, but we can’t dig through people’s belongings looking for a gun.” 

In Hollywood, the long-awaited premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Monday featured security that eclipsed that for the Academy Awards. Streets were shut down, and seventy police officers were on hand. Star Wars will open in New York on Friday. The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment regarding increased security measures at movie theaters in the city. 

But film-industry watchers say not to expect the fear of attacks, or the hassle of increased security, to keep fans away.

"Nothing will keep a true Star Wars fan from seeing their beloved movie this weekend, and I think the numbers will show that," says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst and well-known box office expert at Rentrak, a media research company.

And there's nothing in the numbers to indicate people are planning to stay away from seeing the seventh film in the franchise. The movie has already sold more than $50 million in advance ticket sales.

"It’ll be a sad day when people won’t go see a movie because they’re afraid," adds Dergarabedian.

New Yorkers interviewed Monday night mostly tended to agree.

"I work on Wall Street," says Matt Porter, 36, outside the AMC theater at 84th and Broadway. "Should I be scared to go to my office every day because of what happened near me on 9-11?”

K.C. Hergott and Leann Porter, who were buying tickets for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, say they won't be deterred from going to the movies for fear of a shooting or attack. “In fact, we were just talking about seeing Star Wars this week,” says Hergott.

But not all moviegoers are so comfortable. After an employee at the 84th Street AMC location told the Voice they have not been ordered to check bags, Manhattan resident Yvonne Naz, who was waiting to see the film Creed, said it was “a little disturbing” that the city's largest theater chain is not adding that element of security. (Representatives from AMC Theaters have yet to return calls from the Voice.)

Naz noted that New Yorkers have a different mindset from that of residents of other cities.

“Manhattan is the target of everything,” she said. “So it’s in the back of the mind that something can always happen here. Whatever happens happens.” 

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