Regal Cinemas to search bags at the door: A reasonable price for safety?

Movie theater chain Regal Entertainment Group’s new security policy involves bag and backpack checks at cinemas.

Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo/File
Moviegoers purchase tickets for an afternoon matinee Friday, July 24, 2015, in Dallas. Regal Entertainment Group, the largest cinema chain in the United States, has begun inspecting bags prior to admissions as part of an effort to improve security in theaters.

Going to the movies this weekend? You may have to surrender your bags to security first.

Regal Entertainment Group, the largest theater chain in the United States with more than 570 cinemas nationwide, has added a new security warning to its website telling customers that bags and backpacks will now be subject to inspection prior to admission. It’s unclear when and where the policy was first implemented, but customers noticed the change in Texas, Virginia, Florida, and Ohio starting earlier this month, The Associated Press reported.

The policy raises questions about approaches to public safety and the need for stepped-up security measures in public places. News of the new protocol comes in the wake of theater shootings in Lafayette, La. and Nashville, Tenn. this summer, and as James Holmes – who is convicted of killing 12 at a theater in Aurora, Colo. in 2012 – was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

“Security issues have become a daily part of our lives in America,” the Regal website reads. “We acknowledge that this procedure can cause some inconvenience and that it is not without flaws, but hope these are minor in comparison to increased safety.”

In the face of airport attacks, bomb threats, school shootings, and other acts of violence in public places, venues across the US have employed a variety of security measures. Schools have hired armed guards and installed metal detectors. Sports organizations and arenas have enacted “clear bag” policies. The Transportation Security Administration’s screening strategy has become standard for most travelers.

The drive to heighten security is no surprise, as the United States faces the “most significant and complex period of threats” to date, John D. Cohen, who until last summer led counterterrorism efforts at the Department of Homeland Security, told The New York Times.

Public safety concerns today range from terrorist organizations abroad to the everyday individuals they inspire through social media and the Internet, said Mr. Cohen, now a criminal justice professor at Rutgers. Such issues push companies, especially those at risk of being held responsible for violence that occurs at their venues, to take steps to protect their customers and themselves. 

“I believe that fear – of both violence and being held liable for it – is the primary driver of expanded security regardless of context,” Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology and an affiliated professor with the criminal justice program also at Rutgers, wrote in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. “The calculus essentially is that it is better to be safe – even at the expense of comfort, convenience, and security dollars – than sorry.”

And while theaters are less likely than, say, schools, to be held responsible for shootings, they also have an added incentive to inspect bags – it helps deter customers from bringing in outside food and drinks, "a very effective offset against the added security costs," according to Dr. Hirschfield.

But, he noted, there are consequences to increasing security. “For example, such measures help normalize a police and security state in the the public mind,” he wrote. Over time, these could become the legal standard for a "reasonable" level of security.

The extent of Regal’s new policy also has yet to be clarified.

“The protocol needs to be defined,” Jeff Bock, box office analyst for theater-industry research firm Exhibitor Relations, told USA Today. “Exactly what are they doing and what kind of training are you giving to employees?”

Still, some customers may welcome Regal’s decision. A survey of moviegoers, done at the end of July by consumer research firm C4, found that 34 percent wanted armed guards and metal detectors, and a quarter were in favor of mandatory bag checks. (C4 noted, however, that only 13 percent were willing to pay $3 for the extra measures, which the firm said “come with steep pricetags.”)

"Moviegoers have become so accustomed to having these types of security measures enacted in all kinds of public spaces, from theme parks to sports venues and rock concerts,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for entertainment research company Rentrak, told USA Today. "I don’t think anyone is going to stay away from a movie theater because of increased security measures.

“If anything,” he added, “they’re going to appreciate it."

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