Once again, mass shootings have cast a pall over the summer box office, provoking debate about what safety measures need to be instituted to ensure these tragedies do not become commonplace. However, those concerns appear to have a limited impact on ticket sales.
Gun violence erupted in a darkened movie theater at a Thursday night screening of “Trainwreck,” killing two audience members and injuring nine others in the city of Lafayette, La. — nearly three years to the day after James Holmes opened fire at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 patrons and wounding 70.
Major movies like Sony’s “Pixels” failed to connect with audiences, but that appears to be more attributable to Adam Sandler’s dwindling fanbase than it does to fears about violence or copycat shooters. In a summer already marred by a stream of senseless killings, from the slaughter of nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., to the murder of four marines in Chattanooga, Tenn., such instances of bloodshed appear to be becoming disturbingly routine.
“The films did about what they were supposed to do,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “America is a little bit desensitized by shootings, because they occur on almost a weekly basis.”
Some studio executives privately wondered if films like Fox’s “Paper Towns” and “Pixels,” which draw younger crowds, saw grosses drop as families decided to stay home, although most people polled believed that was unlikely. The overall box office was down roughly 5% from the year-ago period, but that was a weekend that saw major releases like “Lucy” and “Hercules” do robust business, making comparisons difficult.
“I don’t know if there’s any way of really knowing,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s domestic distribution chief. “There’s nothing dramatically off in the box office that I can see.”
Hollywood is clearly shocked by the killings. “Trainwreck” star Amy Schumer and director Judd Apatow released statements of dismay and sympathy, and other celebrities such as Jeffrey Wright and Lena Dunham called for stricter gun-control measures. In the immediate aftermath of the Louisiana shootings, state authorities vowed to increase police presence in movie theaters over the weekend, and state Rep. Barbara Norton said she will introduce a bill to put metal detectors in theaters.
Tighter security measures may be coming to multiplexes beyond Louisiana, but with regard to ticket sales, the circumstances surrounding the murders in Lafayette are different than they were in Aurora. In that case, Holmes appeared to be responding in a warped way to “The Dark Knight” mythology, dressing himself in an outfit that resembled the costume worn by the Joker. In this instance, there was no obvious correlation between the film being played and the shooting itself. “Trainwreck,” the film that was showing when the Lafayette shooter opened fire, did not suffer any box office downturn. It did solid business, dropping a modest 43% from its opening weekend results to pull in $17.3 million in receipts.
This weekend, the Associated Press surveyed moviegoers in places like Boston and Washington, and found that while many were shaken by the deaths in Louisiana, they said the murders would not prevent them from visiting cinemas.
That is interesting, albeit anecdotal. Ultimately, it’s difficult to determine whether moviegoers decided to steer clear of theaters for fear of their safety, though there is some evidence that the Aurora murders depressed ticket sales. Research group NRG reported that 20% to 25% of the domestic moviegoing population was hesitant to visit theaters after the killings. Studio executives said the murders kept people away from cinemas in the weeks following the shooting. Yet “The Dark Knight Rises” still made more than $130 million in the days after Aurora and went on to gross north of $450 million domestically, suggesting that any anxiety was ephemeral.
“It’s tough to prove a negative,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “Families may have paused for a moment, particularly this weekend, but over the long term, I don’t think there’s going to be a discernible effect.”