A lone gunman walked into a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., early Friday and opened fire, killing at least 12 people and wounding 59 others before police took him into custody in a parking lot behind the theater. The shooting — the deadliest ever at a U.S. exhib — prompted Warner Bros. to cancel its Paris premiere and forced theater chains around the world to add security measures as the Batman tentpole bows this weekend at more than 4,400 theaters in the U.S. and in 17 overseas markets.
Police said the suspected gunman, 24-year-old student James Eagen Holmes, was not talking and no motive had been determined. About a half-hour into the 12:05 a.m. showtime, police say Holmes entered through the rear doors of the Cinemark-owned Century 16 theater wearing a bullet-proof vest, gas mask and riot helmet, tossed in two canisters of crowd-control gas and began firing at random. He was arrested without further incident in possession of a rifle, a shotgun and a handgun; another handgun was found in his white Hyundai, which was parked behind the theater.
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At least 71 people were shot in the rampage, and some bullets pierced the wall of the theater adjacent to the screening, where one person was hit. Victims ranging in age from three months to 45 years were taken to six area hospitals, including one emergency room that was merely two blocks from an apartment — believed to be Holmes’ — where police and bomb squads were dealing with numerous incendiary devices, trip-wires, chemicals and other unidentified booby traps.
Warner Bros. execs were reeling from the news Friday morning. Studio quickly canceled plans for today’s Paris premiere, due to be attended by director Christopher Nolan and key cast. Beyond that, sources said there’s been no time to consider whether the tragedy will spur changes to the marketing campaign or have other fallout for the pic (Warners did ask exhibs to pull its “Gangster Squad” trailers over a scene showing agents firing Tommy Guns into a movie theater — which did not play at the Aurora showtime. A new version of the trailer was expected in the future).
“Warner Bros. and the filmmakers are deeply saddened to learn about this shocking incident. We extend our sincere sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims at this tragic time,” the studio said in a statement.
Exhibs were still grasping the impact of the massacre Friday. Many confirmed that additional safety measures were planned this weekend as hordes of people prepared to take in the highly anticipated third installment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy. While the Aurora theater and its surrounding mall were closed indefinitely, studio sources and exhibitors said other showtimes around the U.S. and the world were going on as planned.
The National Assn. of Theater Owners said in a statement: “On behalf of all the members and staff of NATO, our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of this despicable act and their families. … NATO members are working closely with local law enforcement agencies and reviewing security procedures.”
In Los Angeles, efforts to beef up security at weekend screenings were already under way. Commander Andrew Smith from the LAPD said on KPCC’s the Larry Mantle show that plainclothes officers would be dispatched over concerns about copycat attacks, though he stressed that police were treating the Aurora attack as an isolated incident.
National theater chains both large and small quickly issued statements of condolence, adding that they were exploring security adds.
An AMC Theaters statement said it was “actively working with local law enforcement in communities throughout the nation … to review our safety and security procedures,” while Milwaukee-based Marcus Theaters said it would “take appropriate measures to have our security precautions in place today and every day.” Odeon and Vue Cinemas, both based in the U.K., said in separate statements that they, too, would introduce additional security.
Pic opened on 3,700 U.S. screens in its midnight release — grossing between $28 million-$30 million — and was set to expand to more than 4,400 locations, including 332 Imax screens. Domestic box office was expected to open upwards of $175 million (much of that from record pre-sales) which would make it the biggest U.S. open for a 2D movie. Pic is also set to open on more than 6,700 overseas screens in 17 territories.
Witnesses to the Aurora shooting described a chaotic, horrifying scene that began when Holmes entered the emergency exit near the right of the screen and began his attack without saying a word. Many believed at first that he was merely some kind of special-effects enhancement, as it happened during an action scene that involved shooting.
“I thought it was a publicity stunt for a second there and then he threw tear gas over the crowd,” witness Paul Oterman told Sky News. “As soon as he let go of it I could feel it in my eyes and I could tell something was about to go really wrong, and then he started firing shots into the crowd.”
One woman told CNN that she was sitting near the entrance and came face-to-face with Holmes, who fired his first shot at the ceiling and then leveled a rifle at her head. She rolled into the aisle to evade him as he began walking up and shooting rapidly at other patrons behind her.
Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates said they received hundreds of calls beginning at 12:39 a.m. local time, and had officers on the scene within 90 seconds. Many of the 200 officers who responded took victims to hospitals in squad cars.
The cineplex’s sold-out Theater 9, one of four screens showing “The Dark Knight Rises” at midnight, was full to capacity — about 300 patrons in all. The youngest victim, a 3-month-old, was said to be only slightly injured and doing fine. A 6-year-old was also among the wounded, but that child’s condition was not known.
Law enforcement officials said Holmes had neither a military background nor any apparent criminal record in Colorado or San Diego, where he graduated from high school. The University of Colorado, Denver, where Holmes had been enrolled since June 2011, said he was in the process of dropping out of its graduate program in neurosciences.
District Attorney Carol Chambers said Holmes’ case was likely to go to court as early as next week.
Cynthia Littleton, Andrew Stewart, Rachel Abrams, Dave McNary and Josh L. Dickey in Los Angeles contributed to this report.