Thanks to a string of theater-related tragedies, going to the theater is about to become as enjoyable as going to the airport.

Following two recent deadly incidents at movie theatres in the US, the Regal Entertainment Group – the nation’s largest movie theater chain – this week added a bag and purse check policy as a security measure in some of the 569 theaters it operates.

“Security issues have become a daily part of our lives in America. Regal Entertainment Group wants our customers and staff to feel comfortable and safe when visiting or working in our theatres,” the chain said in a statement.

This may sound like a harmless bit of “doing something” in response to a few tragic incidents, but there’s nothing really harmless about it.

First off, it subjects everyone to the same level of scrutiny — provided they’re carrying a bag of some sort. If you have a purse or backpack or (god forbid) a fanny pack, you’re a potential threat. Everyone else? Free to go. Weapons tucked into waistbands or shoved into pockets will go undetected.

And, like the TSA its emulating, the security measures will be easily thwarted and ultimately useless. For every weapon the TSA brags about seizing, many more end up on planes. A recent audit of the TSA’s security efforts found it missed 95% of smuggled weapons and explosives. Anyone thinking Regal’s security force is going to be better trained and more thorough than the TSA is kidding themselves.

Like the TSA’s efforts, this will give moviegoers the illusion of safety, rather than actual safety. An illusion might be comforting enough for most moviegoers and it’s all Regal can actually offer. This move is more about PR than reality.

According to a new survey conducted by consumer research film C4, following the Nashville incident, 48% of moviegoers are willing to pay $1 or more per ticket for the additional measures. Nineteen per cent of respondents said they would pay $3 or more.

And I’m sure Regal will be more than happy to take $1-3 more from every moviegoer in exchange for a hassling a few moviegoers. But Regal’s move — while good-intentioned — is ill-advised. Offering your customers mostly-theoretical protection places responsibility for any future shootings almost solely on each individual theater. Now, if anyone shoots up a theater, Regal will very likely be successfully targeted in wrongful death suits. After all, it instituted additional measures to prevent further shootings… and then failed to prevent a shooting from happening. The additional measures seem unlikely to dissuade anyone but the most easily-deterred shooters from following through with their plans. In exchange for little more than a temporary bump in goodwill, Regal is assuming a great deal of liability.

And given what we know about the most recent theater shootings, a bag check wouldn’t have stopped anything. James Holmes, who killed 12 and wounded 70 in Aurora, CO, stashed his weapons in his vehicle. The shooter in Louisiana may have had a backpack (reports are inconclusive), but it wasn’t on or near him when police got to him, and a controlled detonation later proved there was nothing harmful inside it. The shooter at the Antioch, TN theater was carrying two backpacks — one of which was strapped across his chest. When police engaged him, he was also wearing a surgical mask. Most of what was in his bags weren’t actually weapons, though. Pepper spray, a hatchet and an Airsoft gun were used in the theater attack. Only one of these is an actual weapon, and Regal’s new policy doesn’t make it clear what will happen to those who bring in legal items that aren’t weapons but the theater decides could be deployed as one.

This focus on bags also makes it clear to potential attackers that security will be looking out for one thing — backpacks and bags. Avoiding scrutiny simply means not doing that one thing. So, while some moviegoers will be comforted by this security charade being performed on their behalf, many more will be irritated that attending a movie will be nearly as annoying as boarding a plane.


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