Movie Theater Security Boost Long Overdue

Don't let it vanish once Aurora shooting story subsides

A night out at the local movie theater used to be an enjoyable American family tradition, but those days are long since over. And no, I’m not writing this purely in reaction to last week’s deadly Aurora shooting. It’s an article that I’ve wanted to write before. I’m writing it in reaction to a lifetime of movie going experiences in Philadelphia, which has left me reluctant to go to the movies at all, let alone with my two young children. Whether it’s guns or cell phones, going out to the movies has become a real drag, hasn’t it?

Movie theaters are unique places. Like airplanes, sporting events and concerts, they attract people from all walks of life who intend to stay in one place for a particular amount of time. But unlike airports, sporting events and concerts, movie theaters have had little or no apparent security.

Have a disagreement with your neighboring fan at a Phillies game and, should things get out of hand, a security guard will end your fight for you, possibly by ejecting you from the stadium. But if the jerk behind you in the local cineplex won’t stop yapping on his cell phone, don’t think for a second that there’s going to be an employee of the movie theater willing to help you out. And the jerks know that, so they have no reason to behave differently. It’s up to you to confront and hope for the best. Or move.

I’ve witnessed my fair share of movie theater misbehavior. Once, I decided to pay a visit to the Franklin Mills Mall movie theater on the outskirts of Philadelphia for their $4 movie night, which included free popcorn. What a mistake that was. Two teens engaged in a pretty serious fistfight in the lobby without any employee intervention. In the hallway connecting the individual theaters, a popcorn food fight turned into a sticky soda food fight. And a band of seemingly deranged marauding youth wandered from theater to theater, not to catch multiple movies for the price of one, which would have been acceptable misbehavior, but to cause a disruption and ruin the night out for the people inside, and then move on.

Frankly, I’m surprised that no one got shot that night. But don’t think that the owners of the Franklin Mills movie theater aren’t aware of the problems. Way back in 2000, a shooting inside the theater left three wounded, one critically. And in 2009, a guy dressed in all black with two grenades around his waist was arrested inside the theater. Fortunately, the grenades turned out to be inert.

I long ago lost track of the number of problems I’ve seen at South Philadelphia’s United Artists Riverview Stadium Theater, which is a joke of a place to go if you actually want to watch a movie. Many reasonable, right-thinking Philadelphians I know prefer to pay the $5 Benjamin Franklin Bridge toll and go see the latest blockbuster at the Cherry Hill Loews 24, where things seem a bit more civilized, rather than tempt life and limb at the Riverview. I’m surprised that no one’s been shot there.

Oh wait, they have been.

Back on Christmas night in 2008, 29-year old James Joseph Cialella went to the Riverview to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He brought with him a .380-caliber handgun, which he used to shoot 31-year old Woffard Lomax after a noisy, popcorn-throwing brawl. With proper security in place, this fight never would have been able to escalate to that level.

The newer Rave Motion Pictures University City 6 (formerly the Bridge: Cinema De Lux) at 40th and Walnut streets on the University of Pennsylvania campus isn’t much better than the Riverview. If I were the parent of a Penn student, I’d pay for them to take the Uber car service to a better theater outside of Philadelphia, especially after reading about the off-duty cop and 20-year old Drexel student who were shot at the Bridge during a weekend robbery attempt there. And as for Bart Blatstein’s Pearl cinema on North Broad Street, I crossed that off my list after the shooting that occurred in front of it 3 days after opening.

Movie theater executives have long bemoaned a drastic drop in ticket sales, and experts say that the newest generations are platform neutral, meaning that my children aren’t going to care whether they see Spider-Man 10: Spidey vs. Alien vs. Predator on the big screen, the home theater system, Stephen Starr’s cinema eatery, or whatever wireless devices the kids are using in ten years. They’ll just want to see it.

But I’m not platform neutral. Like most people my age and older, I know that there’s nothing quite like seeing a big movie on the big screen. And in another world, I would drag the wife and kids along and semi-happily drop $60-plus on a night out at the movies. I’ll let my colleagues debate the pros and cons of stricter gun controls. All I know is that I’m officially boycotting Philadelphia’s cineplexes until the big corporations that own these death traps dump some of my ticket spending into real — and permanent — security enhancements. And don’t even think about raising the ticket prices, buddy.