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Why Regal’s Bag Checks Are Just Security Theater

Bag checks at movie theaters waste time and don’t increase safety.

Why Regal’s Bag Checks Are Just Security Theater
[Photo: Flickr user Mike Kalasnik; App Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

In the wake of the recent shooting in Louisiana–in which a man killed two and wounded nine during a showing of Trainwreck–it’s no surprise that some people may be nervous when they head out to the multiplex. But Regal Entertainment Group’s decision to begin searching moviegoers’ bags is really just security theater, an illusion that the teenagers checking your ticket stubs can protect against those hell-bent on taking lives.

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Buried in an online document entitled “Admittance Procedures,” Regal recently added language that states it will now search backpacks and bags in an attempt to better protect audiences and workers at its 569 theaters nationwide:

Security issues have become a daily part of our lives in America. Regal Entertainment Group wants our customers and staff to feel comfortable and safe when visiting or working in our theatres. To ensure the safety of our guests and employees, backpacks and bags of any kind are subject to inspection prior to admission. 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.

Regal, the nation’s largest cinema chain, is not the first theater company to take this type of action: Showcase Cinemas started banning backpacks and packages earlier this month, and reserves the right to search purses and bags.

Bag Checks Create A False Sense Of Security

What these decisions don’t do, however, is actually make anyone safer, even as they add the kind of lengthy inconvenience that has made us all detest going through security at airports.

“The ultimate question here, whether you’re talking about schools, movie theaters, theme parks, or other facilities, is, are these backpack checks a facade, an illusion of security, or are you really doing something to have a meaningful, thorough, enhanced security check?” Ken Trump, a security expert who specializes in studying school safety, told Fast Company. “The issue isn’t, are you doing these checks? The issue is: Who’s doing them, and how? And what are you going to do if you find something?”

Trump noted that unless you’re talking about a special showing, movie theaters are rarely going to hire security officers to screen attendees. Rather, “they’re going to have the teen working part time taking tickets playing security officer at the gate, and it’s going to be a joke.”

He likened Regal’s move to responses he’s seen at some schools in the aftermath of shootings. There, he said, you see a “teacher or other adult patting bags down one side, and squeezing it like you’d be feeling a fruit or vegetable in the stands in your local grocery.”

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In short, Trump said, this kind of “security” is an “illusion” and little more than “total security theater [and] smoke and mirrors.” More to the point, most adults won’t be fooled into thinking they’re safer.

“Most people know it’s a farce,” he said, “and the only thing you’re really doing is further delaying and inconveniencing the people going through those lines.”

Though Trump is not an expert on cinema security, he understands what institutions can do to protect themselves and attendees. At schools, he said, the only real way to keep weapons out is to get “into metal detector checks and backpack scans and [having] professional police officers doing that.”

But Metal Detectors Are Expensive

Even adding metal detectors may not do the job. As Expert Security Consulting president Howard Levinson told the Chicago Tribune, “A metal detector would be like eye candy. It would look good . . . but it’s not by any means going to stop anything.”

Levinson added that metal detectors are likely too costly for theaters. Still, some experts believe theaters may feel they have little choice but to add that kind of security measure.

Last month, after the Louisiana theater shooting, Jim Davis, a former executive director for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, told USA Today permanent security changes are inevitable.

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“There is no question in my mind that there are meetings going on as we speak, talking about improving security and associated liability,” Davis told USA Today. “I think it will take time to happen. . . . By necessity now–from a liability standpoint, movie theaters are going to have to step up.”

It’s also true that many sports venues have already determined that the public is willing to put up with inconvenient security measures. Go to an NBA game, for example, and you most likely will be scanned and told to leave anything bigger than a purse behind.

The most obvious solution to the question of security in public spaces is, of course, increased gun control. Bag checks and metal detectors–useful as they may be at lulling the public into a sense of security–only pile onto the staggering $229 billion that gun violence already costs each year.

Regal did not respond to a Fast Company request for comment.

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About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications

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