Will Moviegoers Shun ‘Dark Knight Rises’ After Colorado Shooting?

After the shooting at a midnight screening, are Hollywood’s lofty expectations a bust?

As The Dark Knight Rises, one of the most anticipated blockbusters in recent years, triumphantly made its way into theaters Friday with glowing reviews, Hollywood just had one question: how big will Batman’s opening be?

The Avengers, Marvel Comics’ superhero mashup, had already set the benchmark high. It opened in May with a record-breaking $207.4 million, but that movie was helped by numerous 3-D showings, which come with higher ticket prices. The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s third and final Batman film, was only shot in 2-D. Some projections put the film at $175 million for the weekend, while more generous estimates said the movie can pull in as much as $215 million. Peter Travers, the film critic for Rolling Stone, recently told me he thought there was “no way” Batman could top The Avengers. But after midnight screenings Thursday night, it looked like Dark Knight could come out on top. It scored a record $27 million in midnight screenings alone, on its way to becoming the biggest release Hollywood has ever seen.

That headline was lost, of course, in the frenzy of Friday’s news. After a 24-year-old man allegedly opened fire on a crowded theater in Colorado, killing 12 people and injuring 50, morning broadcasts looked in horror at the sight of a multiplex turned in a violent, bloody crime scene. What’s worse, the descriptions of what happened—a deranged man in a gas mask opening fire on innocent victims—eerily mirrors a scene in the movie, where the evil, masked Bane (Tom Hardy) aims a machine gun at a crowd of people in Gotham City, massacring bystanders left and right.

The previous Batman film, The Dark Knight, grossed $533 million, becoming the No. 4 most successful movie of all time. The real-life tragedy associated with that film—the death of Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, from an accidental drug overdose—took place months before its release, giving Warner Bros. time to reposition its marketing campaign. In Nolan’s new film, Gotham doubles as post–Sept. 11 New York, an image that may be hard to watch following all the real-life violence on TV.

Warner Bros. responded by issuing a statement and canceling the film’s premiere in Paris. But beyond the tragedy, this shooting is also a PR nightmare for one of the biggest movies of the year and for Hollywood, which will follow The Dark Knight Rises with releases of the gun-toting Total Recall and the fourth Bourne movie in August. Audience attendance is already down compared to last summer, as theatergoers commonly complain about inflated movie-ticket prices, distractions from texting, and reports of bedbugs.

The morning news broadcasts’ coverage of every detail of the crime—the suspect’s apartment, eyewitness reports—may serve as a deterrent to the some crowds of people who had planned on seeing The Dark Knight Rises. On the Today show, where I was a guest Friday morning, one of the most horrifying anecdotes came from a young man talking about slipping in a stream of blood as he tried to flee the theater in the aftermath of the shooting.

As of now, most theater chains will continue to do business as usual. The film’s lengthy 161-minute run time means that many theaters across the country are hosting screenings well into dawn, some starting as late as 1 or 2 a.m. Regal Cinemas announced earlier this week that it would be showing The Dark Knight Rises nonstop, 24 hours a day, at certain locations.

Representatives from Regal, as well as AMC Theatres and IMAX, did not respond to a request for comment. Reached by phone, a local AMC employee said no screenings had been canceled, but that members of the New York City Police Department were stationed at the theaters as a safety precaution.