After Orlando Shooting, Hollywood Faces Tough Conversation About Violence

MTV True Life Orlando
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

The Tony Awards on Sunday night were a muted affair, held just hours after a mass shooting in a gay club left 50 people dead in Orlando, Fla.

“It’s quite important that in these situations, we in the arts keep going,” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber told Variety at a Tony after-party at New York’s Baccarat Hotel, adding that he’d just attended a late-night celebration for his musical “School of Rock” with the cast’s young actors. “I came away with one thought,” he said. “No child is born to hate.”

The entertainment industry is still grappling with the implications of the Orlando massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. On Twitter and elsewhere, celebrities expressed an outpouring of grief. J.K. Rowling posted a photo of victim Luis Vielma, 22, wearing his Hogwarts uniform as an employee at Universal Studios working at the “Harry Potter” ride. “I can’t stop crying,” she wrote. Writer-director Michael Showalter said he was angry at Hollywood for glorifying violence: “Just stop it. The videogames. The movies. All of it.” Ellen Page talked about how the gay community “must stand together more than ever.”

Kelly Bush Novak, founder and CEO of ID PR, and a gay rights advocate, told Variety she hopes the tragedy will have a galvanizing effect. “The victims in Orlando paid for their freedom with their lives,” Novak said. “Ours is the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. As agents of cultural change we must honor the lives of all LGBTQ people by telling stories that turn fear into pride for our youth, and that allow us to be seen in all of our diverse and powerful glory.”

“People go to the movies for escapism, but it’s hard to escape something like this.”
Analyst Jeff Bock

From Aurora to Newtown, after each mass shooting, Hollywood faces difficult conversations about its role in an increasingly dangerous world — one in which killers, warped by religious fundamentalism or mental illness, rely on easy access to assault weapons to end dozens of lives in a blink of an eye. This year alone, there has been a mass shooting on 133 of 164 days.

Each cycle of violence raises questions about people’s willingness to leave their homes to see movies, concerts, or plays. The murders in Orlando by a lone gunman, Omar Mateen, who was killed by police, may have lasting repercussions.

“At some point there’s a tipping point,” said Howard Levinson, a security consultant for schools, movie theaters, and businesses. He noted that assault-rifle-wielding police officers are now a common sight in France and other parts of Europe following last fall’s terrorist attacks in Paris. In the days leading up to the Cannes Film Festival, officials staged an elaborate standoff with gunmen to look for lapses in their emergency responsiveness. It’s a tactic that is already being embraced by sports stadiums. Officials and police at Boston’s Fenway Park, for instance, engaged in a mock counterterrorism exercise June 12, complete with fake gunshots and explosions. Levinson predicts such preparations could soon be the standard at major public venues.

“It’s a different world,” he said. “The term ‘active shooter’ barely existed 20 or 30 years ago. Now it’s on the tip of nearly everybody’s tongue.”

Theaters have not yet been required to install metal detectors and armed guards, but the movie business has made some moves to deal with the frightening new reality. Following the 2012 shooting at a late-night showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., that left 12 dead and 70 injured, studios began moving preview screenings to as early as 8 p.m. out of safety concerns. Many major theater chains, such as AMC and Regal, tightened their costume policies, barring guests from bringing fake weapons or wearing masks.

Privately, studio executives said they did not expect the Orlando nightclub shooting to keep people away from movie theaters. Even in cases where theaters themselves have been the scene of murders, the aftershocks have been limited, and largely regional; ticket sales have dipped primarily in areas close to the crime scene, they said. But the steady stream of such events is bound to have a psychological impact on audiences.

‘Senseless Acts of Tragedy’: Lin-Manuel Miranda recited an emotional sonnet as part of an acceptance speech for “Hamilton” during the Tony Awards June 12 in New York. Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

“People go to the movies for escapism, but it’s hard to escape something like this,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Every time you’re at a movie or a sporting event or gathering, it’s going to creep up into the back of people’s minds.”

Nightclubs will feel a financial pinch analogous to the one suffered by airlines in the wake of the 9/11 attacks when ridership declined, security consultants said. “Let’s call it the night-time economy, the businesses that exist between 6 pm. and 3 a.m. They will be impacted by an immediate panic,” predicted Robert C. Smith, CEO of Nightclub Security Consultants. “People will not go out.”

Smith believes metal detectors, which can cost in excess of $200,000 and require trained staffers to oversee them, could be prohibitively expensive for small venues. However, he says, clubs may be mandated to add training for bouncers on how to deal with shooters.

In addition to the prohibitive costs of high-tech security measures, the inconspicuous profiles of the killers themselves make preventing the next big attack nearly impossible. The internet has enabled shooters to become radicalized into extreme views, while also providing them access to information about building arsenals. Such potential killers typically have limited criminal records, making it difficult to track their moves.

“A lot of times they’re flying under the radar, and there’s not much indication they’re going to perpetrate an attack,” said Jeffrey Simon, author of “Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat.” “We’re living in an age where a lone-wolf terrorist, whatever their motivation, has an advantage over people trying to prevent an attack.”

At the Tonys, the “Hamilton” cast felt bittersweet emotions about winning 11 awards at a time of national tragedy. In the pressroom, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda told reporters that the LGBT community is the “cornerstone” of the theater industry. The evening was the culmination of seven years of work, he said, but such shootings are a reminder that life can be snuffed out in an instant.

“You have tragic acts like today when you realize that tomorrow is not promised,” said Miranda. It was a moment of reflection that carried throughout the Tonys broadcast. Even the show’s final number, “The Schuyler Sisters,” seemed to double as a eulogy with the poignant lyric: “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”