Mayhem occurs every day in movie theaters. But when the violence moves from the screen to the aisles, as happened early Friday morning during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Colorado, cinema managers are as shocked as audiences.
"The film industry is a close-knit community and this tragedy affects us all," said Stephen Lightman, CEO of Memphis-based Malco Theatres Inc., which operates 30 cinemas in five states.
The Colorado shooting may have been unprecedented in U.S. history. Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the Washington-based National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the trade organization that represents about 30,000 of the nation's 39,000 movie screens, said the tragedy apparently was the first of its kind in an American cinema. Murders have occurred, but not Columbine-style premeditated massacres.
"When violence does occur in a movie theater, generally it involves disputes between patrons that get out of hand," he said.
The tragedy interrupted what otherwise likely would have been a celebration of record box-office receipts and a validation of the relevance of the traditional movie-going experience in a culture increasingly distracted by handheld devices, flat-screen televisions, "streamed" on-demand films and other stay-at-home incentives.
"Obviously, we're all just sort of stunned right now, because this was the entertainment event of the year, probably, all over the world," said Malco's executive vice president, Jimmy Tashie.
The final chapter in director Christopher Nolan's ambitious "Batman" trilogy -- which began in 2005 with "Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight Rises" -- currently is on 4,404 screens nationwide.
The movie opened at midnight Thursday at 3,825 theaters (including 330 premium-priced IMAX screens). It earned $30.6 million, for the second-biggest midnight debut ever (behind the final "Harry Potter" film).
The Aurora "movie massacre" -- as it has been dubbed by CNN -- occurred during an opening-night midnight screening, when a gunman opened fire inside the theater. Twelve people were killed and at least 59 injured, according to CNN reports. A man identified as James Holmes, 24, has been arrested in connection with the crime.
Running an epic 164 minutes, "The Dark Knight Rises" has garnered mostly positive reviews, if not the raves of its predecessor, "The Dark Knight." The 2008 film featured Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning portrayal of the villainous Joker as a nihilist or apolitical terrorist. According to some reports, the Colorado shooter identified with the Joker.
The new movie's villain, Bane (Tom Hardy), also is a champion of "apocalyptic" public violence, according to The New York Times. Variety reported that "The Dark Knight Rises" portrays "a cataclysmic vision of Gotham City under siege," while Salon dubbed the film an "evil masterpiece."
Because digital technology had made movies more accessible than ever, "exhibitors" -- the industry term for the businesses that exhibit movies to paying customers -- are particularly sensitive to anything that might discourage moviegoing. Even so, indicators Friday suggested "The Dark Knight Rises" would continue its frantic pace. A Deadline Hollywood headline reported: "Warner Bros Seeing No 'Dark Knight Rises' Slowdown In Box Office Business."
Many movie theaters regularly employ security guards to discourage unruly behavior. Sometimes plainclothes officers work theater auditoriums, looking for "pirates" using handheld recorders to make illegal copies of the movie. Serious violence in theaters is rare, however, even though close to 1.4 billion movie admissions occur every year in the U.S. and Canada, according to NATO.
Past outbursts typically have been blamed on the demographic appeal of the movie. The opening weekend of John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" in 1991 was marred by what police described as gang-related violence in theaters coast to coast. More than 30 people were injured by gunfire, and a Riverdale, Ill., man was shot and killed.
"When the violence erupted in theaters, it was like a stab in the heart," producer Stephanie Allain told the Los Angeles Times.
Earlier, violence accompanied the release of "The Warriors," a 1979 "gang" movie. The negative press that followed three killings involving moviegoers in separate incidents on the East and West coasts inspired Paramount to pull some advertisements from the film.
Even in fiction, movie-theater violence is relatively rare. In "The Blob" (1958), the title amorphous creature sends an audience fleeing in panic after it enters a movie theater through the projection booth. In "The Tingler" (1959), a centipede creature discovered by Vincent Price escapes into a cinema."
(Contact John Beifuss, film critic of The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal at email@example.com.)