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Debate heats up on movie theater security

Regal Cinemas
Source: Anthony22 | WIkimedia Commons

Outside the Belcourt Theatre, an independent arts cinema in Nashville, Tennessee, patrons are asked to leave big backpacks out for "ease of mind."

The Belcourt's policy is emblematic of an uncertain and tense age, and comes in the wake of several high profile shootings at movie theaters recently. Out of an abundance of caution, a few chains have banned moviegoers from entering with large bags, a response to the shooting last month in Lafayette, Louisiana.

In Nashville, Belcourt's management has also increased staff presence, spokeswoman Cindy Wall said after the latest attack—by a man with a pellet gun and hatchet in Antioch, Tennessee, this month. He was shot dead by police.

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The jury is still out on whether the domestic box office—which has pulled in more than $6 billion total this year, according to Box Office Mojo, will suffer in the aftermath of these shootings. Box office sales declined 5 percent to $10.4 billion in 2014, said the Motion Picture Association of America, with the number of tickets sold declining 6 percent to 1.27 billion.

Some observers have remarked that ticket sales are already softening for other economic reasons, despite the performance of several recent blockbusters. In light of the rash of violence, the situation isn't helped by security fears.

Regardless, movie chains are going the extra mile to protect consumers, who now must contend with the added inconvenience of security searches or being barred from bringing large bags into theaters.

For now, the majority of moviegoers say it's business as usual.

Eighty-five percent of consumers said movie theater risks—including the July death of two moviegoers in Lafayette, terror threats surrounding 2014 film "The Interview," and the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, theater rampage—would have no impact on how often they attended the cinema, according to research firm C4 R&D.

C4 surveyed over 250 moviegoers from July 28-29, and found just over a third support tactics like metal detectors or bag searches in movie theaters.

Major movie chains have implemented changes. Showcase Cinemas, a chain of theaters in the Northeast, said it now prohibits backpacks and packages. Regal Entertainment Group, which owns nearly 600 theaters nationwide, said it plans to inspect bags. Days after the Lafayette shooting, some of its locations barred patrons from entering its facilities with large bags.

"Security issues have become a daily part of our lives in America," Regal's website said. "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."

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Metal detectors at the movies

In Louisiana, state Rep. Barbara Norton is working on a new law to make metal detectors mandatory in movie theaters, citing the almost 20 movie theater shootings since 1955. She told CNBC that some of her constituents have expressed concern about a general lack of safety heading out to the movies.

The costs of such a move would surely be borne by the movie theater owners, but Norton believes it would be a relatively small price to pay.

"I would think the owners of that movie theater should feel a responsibility to make sure their customers are safe," Norton said. "There is no amount of money worth someone losing their child, husband or wife. The responsibility is on the businesses to make sure it's safe."

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'It could kill this industry'

Norton said that police equipment suppliers in Baton Rouge sell the detectors for as little as $150. Yet security consultant Arnette Heintze said metal detectors could cost a theater $20,000 to $50,000 a year, and another $10,000 to $15,000 to train personnel on threat assessment. That could result in costs being passed along to moviegoers, who already pay more than $8 per ticket, an all time high.

"It could kill this industry. People will not go to the movie theaters," said Heintze, CEO of strategic security and investigations firm Hillard Heintze. He also cautioned that the central problem had little to do with the movie theaters themselves, even though they would bear the costs.

"The issues that have happened in our nation are not about the theaters themselves," he said. "It's about individuals on a path to violence, and they've chosen a venue that happens to be a movie theater."

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Even if theaters are forced to step up security, analyst Eric Handler said he he doesn't expect a "meaningful shift" in costs or sales.

"Actually, I think consumers' view of movie theaters has improved quite a bit in recent years," Handler said. "If you look at the industry, you're seeing a lot of renovation, specifically targeting customer amenities like reclining seats and broader concession items," he added.

"You don't want to downplay the issues of what has happened in Colorado and Louisiana, but movie theaters face the same issues that any other public space is facing, be it sporting events or concerts," Handler said.

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Still, the questions surrounding movie theater security may provide a boost to home entertainment, some say. With ticket prices on the rise, the atmosphere of movie theaters just doesn't chalk up to home entertainment, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found in a recent survey.