EXCLUSIVE: With a rush of holiday moviegoers and following some suspicious activity outside theaters in at least two U.S. cities — one last week in Southern California and another in Arizona last night — exhibitors across the nation have “doubled” workforce security in preparation for the 4,134-theater release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It is understood that armed guards will be on duty in some cases and that heightened security at the nation’s theaters will be in place throughout the holidays.
The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) sent a notice out to its members about both suspicious incidents, Deadline was told, including the latest incident in Tempe, AZ. When contacted by Deadline, a NATO spokesman said, “As a general rule we don’t comment on security issues.”
One film buyer who has the film booked on the majority of their screens said they have five security guards employed at each theater. “We’ve hired security at every location to be safe,” the buyer said. “We will have five (guards) posted and reserve the right to check (customers’) bags. We will not let anyone walk in with a backpack or anything larger than a purse, and whatever they are carrying will be checked.”
In addition, some locations will wand patrons, which is a good idea given that many Star Wars fans will come in costume. “Everyone is paying attention to the security environment using common-sense measures,” said another source. “Nothing specific from Homeland Security yet has been issued.”
The most recent report of suspicious activity happened in a theater in Tempe, AZ, the home to Arizona State University. At a mall theater there, according to documents obtained by Deadline, two men in their “mid- to late 20s'” who were “Middle Eastern in appearance … and spoke with a heavy foreign accent” walked into a theater a little after 11 PM and began filming with their cellphone camera. They walked in without tickets and blew past the door employee.
When theater personnel caught up with them, one “had his phone stretched out in front of him and was recording our lobby, concession stand and exit doors in one slow swooping motion.” When asked what they were doing, one of the men said they “just wanted to see the restaurant” and then he motioned toward the concession stand. They left the building and went into the patio area and both made phone calls. Mall security was called, as was the general manager of the theater.
Pictures of both men were caught on security cameras, and all suspicious activity logged is being shared with local, state and federal employees. NATO has also asked theaters to please “remain alert and report any suspicious activity occurring at your theaters” and to law enforcement.
“There was also one that didn’t make sense that happened last week in Southern California,” said one exhibition veteran, who declined to name the city. “Guys walked up and were asking kind of alarming questions.”
NATO would not respond to multiple requests from Deadline (either by phone or email) for a list of specific locations/cities where suspicious activity has already been reported.
In that incident, which exhibitors also were alerted to, a man drove up to the theater and began asking questions such as “How big is your theater?” “When are the most people here?” and “How crowded is it going to be this weekend?” The man then left the theater and got in a car with no license plate. Shortly thereafter, a second man did a similar thing and also drove away in a car with no plates.
One security expert who oversees some major theaters where Star Wars will be playing said he already has upped his security guards in response to the expected record crowds. However, he doesn’t foresee any fallout from the San Bernardino terrorist incident.
Nonetheless, a high alert following the San Bernardino massacre remains. “I’ve heard of six different incidents that were allegedly cased by Middle Eastern people, but when I went through my sources at the FBI, none of it was valid.”
“A majority of the reason why we’re beefing up security is because it’s the biggest movie ever,” said the security expert. He said he might assign one guard in any given weekend at an average 12-plex. Deadline has learned that in a venue, say, in downtown L.A., theaters normally employ about three to four security guards. However, those same locations through the holiday will now get as much as three times that. Disney, Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ distributor, is also said to be providing some security.
A handful of venues have queried security organizations because of the San Bernardino terrorist attack and have asked for more security, but “it’s more about them erring on the side of caution rather than a credible threat,” he said.
“The crowds showing up this weekend are the superfans, and they’re the easiest people to deal with,” the security expert said. “They follow whatever rule is set because they’re there to see the movie.”