Cinema scare

Hundreds evacuated from Tinseltown after suspect device sighted

Cinemark employees bar patrons from re-entering the theater during Sunday’s bomb scare.

Cinemark employees bar patrons from re-entering the theater during Sunday’s bomb scare.

Photo By Ken Smith

Several hundred moviegoers were evacuated from Cinemark’s Tinseltown theater on East Avenue Sunday (Jan. 6) after a suspicious-looking package was spotted in the parking lot between the theater and Trader Joe’s.

This reporter was attending a 6:10 p.m. showing of Django Unchained when, at approximately 7 p.m., a Cinemark employee entered the theater and instructed everyone to exit the building as quickly as possible. The house lights stayed off and the film kept playing—through a scene in which hooded riders repeatedly fired guns—as about 75 confused patrons stumbled toward the exits. Though the evacuation was mostly calm and orderly, some patrons pushed through the crowd, and several people appeared anxious.

Upon exiting the building, many customers headed straight for their vehicles and left the premises, while about 200 others gathered near the theater’s east entrance, seeking information and refunds. A uniformed security guard stood near the entrance of the theater telling patrons they couldn’t re-enter and advising them to stay away from the building’s west side.

“It’s a safety procedure, and the police have asked us to evacuate the building,” the man repeated to several customers who asked for details.

Less than five minutes after all of the patrons were evacuated, theater employees marched single file out of the entrance and formed a line in front of the building.

“Which one of you called in a bomb threat so we could go home early tonight,” one employee joked loudly to his co-workers.

Several Cinemark employees said they weren’t allowed to give details, but one young woman—who didn’t give her name—was more candid: “We got a call from the Police Department about something suspicious on the side of the building. That’s all we were told,” she said. The woman—who admitted to being nervous about the situation herself—said, “I’ve worked here over a year, and this has never happened before.”

The Chico Police Department received a call at 6:36 p.m. that a dark-gray Rubbermaid container had been left unattended in the lot. According to CPD records technician Laura Smith, the Butte County Interagency Bomb Squad was in the process of assembling and responding to the call when a citizen intervened and opened the container, revealing it to be empty. The call was canceled at 7:07 p.m.

The theater has been evacuated at least twice before. On Nov. 23, 2009, a popcorn fire filled the building with smoke, prompting an evacuation and short closure. Just days later, on Nov. 28, a plastic hand grenade outside the building also caused the theater to be emptied.

During Sunday’s incident, employees distributed rain-check vouchers to those who waited. Those who stuck it out—mostly out of curiosity about what prompted the evacuation—were allowed back into the theater at around 7:20 p.m. Less than two-dozen patrons, roughly a third of the original audience, returned to the screening I was attending.

The potential for disaster in theaters was made apparent by the July 20, 2012, shooting spree at a Century movie theater (also owned by Cinemark) in Aurora, Colo., during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises.

This was undoubtedly on the minds of some people as they evacuated Tinseltown Sunday. Ironically, pre-trial hearings for the alleged shooter, James Eagan Holmes, began the following day. Holmes is facing 24 counts of first-degree murder and 116 counts of attempted murder.

At least three surviving victims of the Aurora shooting have filed civil lawsuits against Cinemark for negligence as a result of the shooting, alleging the gunman exited and entered the building several times to reload and retrieve more weapons, unhindered by Cinemark employees or security. The corporation’s stance is that it is not responsible for failure to prevent an unforeseeable criminal act.

Tinseltown management deferred questions about security and evacuation procedures to James Meredith, Cinemark’s vice president of marketing and communications. In a phone interview from Cinemark’s headquarters in Plano, Texas, Meredith said he was familiar with the Chico incident but didn’t know the details. He did not supply further information as of press time.