Grief may have weighed heavily on the minds of Hollywood executives on Friday after the massacre at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, but so must have money. After all, the latest Batman sequel's release this weekend was supposed to be one of the biggest movie openings of all time, and tens (maybe hundreds) of millions of dollars were at stake.
Before the Friday morning tragedy, The Dark Knight Rises had been on track to rival the record-breaking $207 million opening of The Avengers earlier this summer. Midnight screenings (which took place before the news of the Colorado shooting broke) yielded an estimated $30.6 million, according to distributor Warner Bros., a figure second only to the $43.5 million earned at midnight screenings of the final Harry Potter movie last summer. Still, wouldn't escapist moviegoers prefer to see something other than the film the victims were watching, a picture whose grim tone and relentless violence would serve only as further reminders of the real-life horror?
Warner Bros. has already taken some steps to avoid insensitive reminders. On Friday morning, the studio yanked the trailers for its upcoming release Gangster Squad – which contains a sequence in which gunmen shoot up a cinema – from theaters (including some where it preceded screenings of The Dark Knight Rises) and from the Internet. The studio also canceled a premiere for The Dark Knight Rises in Paris, a move that underscores the fact that the film's potentially massive overseas take is also at risk.
In America, many theater chains showing the movie were preparing to beef up security with additional personnel. Of course, the extra cost to exhibitors and the added hassle for viewers may dampen the weekend box office as well.
"Families will be much more cautious about bringing their brood to the theaters this weekend," Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co, tells Rolling Stone. "The reality of what happened in Aurora cannot be overlooked or placated. The violence inherent to The Dark Knight Rises may just be too much for people looking for simple escapism this weekend, considering the reality of what happened. And for potential moviegoers that were wary about seeing it in the first place, they may just skip it altogether."
Gitesh Pandya, editor of Box Office Guru, believes the killings won't have much effect on the film's opening take. "It's an awful and senseless tragedy and the opening weekend may see a minor impact," Pandya says. "Those now resisting the film and those even more curious may end up canceling each other out."
Beyond its implications for opening weekend, however, the Colorado rampage "sent quite a shockwave down Hollywood’s backlots," Bock says. He predicts that the tragedy would force the MPAA ratings board to be less lenient about violence. (The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13, not R.) "This shooting may have far-reaching ramifications as far as the MPAA is concerned," he says. "It will certainly fuel conservatives' fire about violence in movies, now that they have a horrific incident to fall back on."
Not that stricter ratings will stop Hollywood from making violent entertainment. "Darker action films and comic movies will continue to get made," Pandya says."They are not at fault here."
The immediate impact is still hard to gauge. Late Friday, Warner Bros. issued a statement saying it wouldn't release box office estimates until Monday, out of respect for the Aurora victims. Nonetheless, Deadline estimated that the film had earned $77 million on Friday (including the tally from midnight screenings and presold tickets), putting it on track for a weekend total of about $170 million. That would fall well short of the Avengers milestone but would still set a record for a 2D movie. (Based on estimates from rival studios, Variety is putting Friday's earnings at $75 million.)
At least one theater figured out how to encourage people to see The Dark Knight Rises without appearing insensitive. That was Hollywood's ArcLight Cinema, which put up a collection box for donations to the victims' families.