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Regal Cinemas begins bag checks for security (and snacks?)

Regal Cinemas, by far North America's largest theater chain, is now bolstering security -- and perhaps its coffers -- with bag and backpack searches at entrances to its locations.

A smart move, considering this summer's pair of deadly events at theaters (not Regal's) in Louisiana and Tennessee, in addition to the recent sentencing to life in prison of a man responsible for mass murder in a Colorado multiplex in 2012.

But is it enough? And what other contraband besides weapons are theaters attempting to sniff out?

Moviegoers are now greeted in Regal lobbies by signs informing them of the checks, with admonitions that weapons, food and drink aren't allowed to be carried into theaters. It isn't hard to imagine that more canned soft drinks, chicken strips and candy will be discovered during these checks than guns or knives. Locally, our Regal theaters are in Pinellas Park, Largo and Citrus Park.

A few Americans may be killers, but most are just snack smugglers.

Since theaters charge exorbitantly for concession stand items -- their primary source of revenue while studios grab the lion's share of box office proceeds -- it benefits them to prevent snacks from being sneaked in. Patrons can then be nudged toward $8 popcorn and $5 soft drinks to satisfy their munching habits during movies.

We've seen this sort of intrusion for our own good before, in the Patriot Act passed after the 9/11 attacks, that seemed necessary then to sniff out terrorists but was eventually stretched to invading the privacy of innocents.

Of course, Regal doesn't include this collateral effect in a statement on its website (regmovies.com):

"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."

There are alternatives that would keep weapons out of theaters, primarily metal detectors and wanding that would detect them. This would be an expensive solution, to be sure, but a recent survey conducted by C4 indicates that 48 percent of moviegoers would pay $1 extra per ticket for extra security.

C4 did an earlier survey, before the Nashville, Tenn. incident on Aug. 5 involving a man wielding a hatchet and pepper spray, in which only 13 percent said they would pay $3 extra per ticket. The Nashville attack and a lower price point appear to have made a difference.

"Moviegoers are telling us that they're starting to see the value of security," C4 executive vice president Ben Spergel told Variety. "Hopefully they're beginning to value it the same amount that they value Imax or 3D, where they recognize that you have to pay more for a better experience. You may also have to pay more for a safer experience."

So far, Regal is alone among major theater chains in implementing bag checks, and none are openly considering the installation of metal detectors. North America's ninth-largest theater chain, National Amusements has banned backpacks from being toted into theaters but is not checking purses or shopping bags.

Regal operates 573 theaters with 7,367 screens in the U.S. and Canada, according to the most recent data (July, 2014) from the National Association of Theater Owners. AMC Entertainment is second with approximately two-thirds of those numbers, followed by Cinemark USA and Carmike Cinemas. AMC and Cinemark wouldn't comment on security issues to Variety; Carmike's spokeswoman said the chain constantly reviews its safety procedures.

They're likely waiting to see what kind of blowback, if any, Regal gets from moviegoers over security checks.

Call me cynical, but learning how much Regal's bottom line is affected -- at the box office and concession stand -- will lend just as much weight to other chains' security decisions in the future.

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