UPDATE 2-'Dark Knight Rises' faces uncertainty at box offices

Fri Jul 20, 2012 5:02pm EDT

* Denver shooting casts pall over movie's future

* Box office watchers say too soon to predict box office

* Midnight screenings started strong at $30.6 million

By Bob Tourtellotte and Ronald Grover

LOS ANGELES, July 20 (Reuters) - Warner Bros. studio on Friday faced the prospect of seeing blockbuster "The Dark Knight Rises" sink at box offices after a tragic movie theater shooting in Denver, even as the film got off to a strong start across the United States and Canada.

Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc, said the film took in $30.6 million at screenings just after midnight, but those results could turn lower in the wake of a mass shooting at one showing of the movie in a Denver suburb.

In New York, police planned to deploy officers at screenings throughout the city as a precaution, and theaters nationwide began reviewing and tightening security.

The head of Cinemark Holdings, owner of the Century 16 movie theater where the shooting occurred in Aurora, Colorado, went on television to stress the safety of moviegoing. Cinemark CEO Tim Warner called the shooting "a one-off tragedy."

"We play to 250 to 255 million people a year with very little incidents. As so, the movie theaters are a very safe and secure environment," Warner said on CNBC.

"The Dark Knight Rises," which is based on the exploits of crime-fighting superhero Batman, is one of this year's major movie releases. Some box office watchers had believed its U.S. and Canadian ticket sales could reach as high as $198 million over this debut weekend, just shy of the $207 million opening set by "The Avengers" earlier this year. The movie cost Warner Bros. $250 million to produce and tens of millions more to market.

But at a midnight premiere in Denver, a gunman wearing a gas mask and a bulletproof vest hurled a gas canister inside the theater and opened fire on moviegoers, killing 12 people and injuring scores more.

Hollywood box office watchers said it was too soon to know exactly how ticket sales would be impacted by the event as the industry has never faced a situation like this one.

"It's too early to tell. This is a tragic and unprecedented event," said Paul Dergarabedian, box office watcher for Hollywood.com Box Office.

Phil Contrino, editor of Boxoffice.com, echoed those sentiments, saying "nobody's ever encountered this before" and added that the first concerns should be for the people and families who were affected by the shooting.

Contrino said the impact on Hollywood and the industry could go beyond just "The Dark Knight Rises" to all films in theaters if people stay away, and it could extend well into the future if the event lingers in people's minds.

Others said the incident would do little to dampen turnout for "The Dark Knight Rises," the finale to a popular Batman saga.

"As horrible as this was, it is likely to affect 'The Dark' at the edges and won't take away that many viewers," said Tony Wible, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott who follows entertainment companies and theater chains. "There are only a few people who won't come out to see a movie because of this."

Warner Bros. issued the midnight box office number but had no further comment. It is the second highest midnight screening total ever, behind 2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II," which raked in $43.5 million in its midnight screenings.

The studio yanked from theaters the promotional trailer for its upcoming crime thriller "Gangster Squad." Set in the 1940s and 1950s, "Gangster Squad" chronicles the Los Angeles Police Department's fight to keep the mafia out of its city.

The trailer, which had been playing ahead of "The Dark Knight Rises" in some locations, features a scene in which men open fire with machine guns on an audience in a movie theater.

Some industry experts said the studio should scale back its promotions for the film.

"Warner Brothers should show sensitivity and pull the ads for a week, certainly in Denver, and maybe around the country," said former Columbia Pictures marketing head Peter Sealey.

The movie, said Sealey, already "had incredible word of mouth. They probably don't even need to advertise over the next week to have a truly huge film."

Earlier this year, Warner pulled video ads for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" around Ground Zero in New York after residents there complained it's depiction of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was insensitive.

Elsewhere, the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade industry association representing movie theater owners, said in a statement its member companies were "working closely with local law enforcement agencies and reviewing security procedures."

The ArcLight Cinemas in Los Angeles increased security at all locations and said "Dark Knight" screenings would continue as planned, according to a message from the theater on Twitter.

Carmike Cinemas, the nation's fourth-largest theater chain, said it uses uniformed "law enforcement officers and plainclothes agents" and other security measures at its 237 theaters.

Carmike, which occasionally searches bags its customers bring into the theater, isn't likely to increase security measures to include metal detectors or search moviegoers, said Terrell Mayton, the company's director of marketing.

Shares of movie theater chains dropped on Friday after the killings.

Cinemark Holdings, owner of the Century 16 movie theater where the shooting occurred, dropped 4.6 percent to close at $23.15 on the New York Stock Exchange. Regal Entertainment Group shares fell 4.4 percent to close at $13.54 on Nasdaq. Shares of Carmike slipped 2.3 percent to $14.48, also on Nasdaq.

Cinemark, in a statement, said it was "working closely" with law enforcement authorities in Aurora and was "deeply saddened" by the incident.

Shares of Time Warner Inc, the media conglomerate that owns the Warner Bros. studio, which produced "Dark Knight Rises," dropped 28 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $38.86 on the NYSE.

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