This report is usually about dollars and cents as we head into the weekend box office with studios opening several new films as others try to hang in. But a tragic factor has entered the mix with last night’s shooting at the Grand Theatre in Lafayette, LA. While it’s clearly of nominal importance compared to a national tragedy that claimed the lives of more moviegoers, I’ve had to ask my distribution sources the obvious question: Will the specter of violence impact moviegoing this weekend? And did it make potential patrons wary after the 2012 shootings in Aurora, CO, that has been in the news as the gunman waits to find out if he will be executed for his callous mass murder, and the January 2014 incident near Tampa in which a man was fatally shot in a theater by another moviegoer in an argument over texting?
News of last night’s shooting probably didn’t get to those who went to the movies last night, so there was no impact on attendance. Experts by and large don’t see it playing much of a role in whether people come out to see films this weekend. “We won’t know until the end of the weekend,” asserts one major studio distribution chief.
Universal’s Trainwreck, the movie that was playing when the shooting occurred last night, was only down 6% on Thursday with $3.1M and an opening week’s cume of $44.2M. The theater count for the Judd Apatow-helmed film raises from 3,158 to 3,171 today. It ranked third behind Universal’s Minions, with $4.8M at 4,311 locations and a running cume of $239.5M, and Disney/Marvel’s Ant-Man, with $4.7M at 3,856 and a seven-day estimated cume of $81.3M.
Among Thursday previews, 20th Century Fox’s teen drama Paper Towns made the most out of the new crop with $2M at 2,500 venues. Shows started at 9PM local time with a Fathom Events special live-stream Q&A with the film’s director and cast in 500 theaters. Should the film hit $20M this weekend, that would be a nice gross for the studio. Sony’s Adam Sandler film Pixels drew $1.5M at 2,776 theaters. The film is still on track to make at least a mid-$20M gross at the low end. The Weinstein Co.’s boxing film Southpaw made $1.15M and is looking for a gross in the midteens.
In general, distributors said that the track record shows the public considers these isolated tragedies perpetrated by psychos who should never have been able to get their hands on guns. Despite the Aurora tragedy, The Dark Knight Rises made slightly more than in predecessor The Dark Knight during its opening weekend ($160.9M to $158.4M). Some felt that the movie might have fared better without the pall placed over the film, but it grossed $448 million domestic and cracked the billion-dollar mark globally. Days following the incident, NRG released a poll showing that 20%-25% of all moviegoers were hesitant to make a trip to the cinema following the Dark Knight Rises shooting. The box office results for the following weekend indicated otherwise, with the trilogy ender grossing $62M and the top four titles overall surpassing $11M.
The other obvious topic of conversation if whether movie theaters should have metal detectors or institute some security measures to counter the threat of gun violence. It remains a touchy topic between exhibitors and distributors. Some movie houses in urban areas do have metal detectors. As for the suburbs, well, it always comes down to money and rationalizations. For instance, one distribution exec told me that “customers do not want to live in a world where they have to go through metal detectors, especially when they’re out for a fun night.”
Another exec felt it was unfair to single out movie theaters; where are the metal detectors in malls, ballparks, train stations? They also cite the futility of all this in a country with such lax gun laws and an NRA lobbying arm that makes them plentiful, even to people who use that firepower for diabolical purposes. That said, exhibitors have been training their theater staffs to recognize trouble and to be cognizant in the wake of Aurora.
Theater security is a factor that is negotiated between studios and exhibitors. When a theater books a volatile movie that could trigger violence, studios in the past sometimes have shared on-site security costs with movie chains. This occurred after outbreaks of gang violence at 20 of the 900 theaters showing John Singleton’s anti-gang film Boyz N The Hood in 1991. Columbia Pictures opted to keep the movie in theaters, even as exhibitors canceled shows. Reports at the time had violence following screenings of Boyz N The Hood, with one man being fatally shot after a midnight showing in a Chicago suburb and 23 people being wounded in incidents from Seattle to Minneapolis to Long Island. This is a rarity, and there is no correlation between Singleton’s anti-street gang polemic and a comedy like Trainwreck.One studio insider tiptoed in trying to differentiate between the Aurora shooting Thursday night’s tragedy. “Not to belittle anything, but one episode was the work of a mass murderer, and what happened last night could have occurred in a subway station or in a mall,” the exec said. “It’s not the same thing.”