AURORA | There’s nothing extraordinary about passing through the dim threshold of Theater I at the Century Aurora 16 movie theater these days.
The welcoming smell of fabricated butter and other quintessential concessions coats the air as moviegoers march into the darkness, some in an excited trot so as not to miss the coveted previews. In the background, the garish games of the “Starcade” wail with buzzers and bleeps that signal minute victories and defeats. Baby-faced employees scamper around the lobby sporting black Cinemark-branded polos. This week, the screen of Theater I — also a special “extreme digital” facility — glows with “Minions” in 3D.
It’s taken time for that seemingly standard scene from Anywhere, U.S.A. to apply to the theater at 14300 E. Alameda Ave., formerly known as the Century 16. Public opinions on the fate of the movie theater at the Town Center at Aurora remain indefatigably split more than 1,000 days after a lone gunman barged into a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 people and wounding 70 others.
For some, no amount of weeks, months or years will ever be enough to make the theater just another under-lit place to see a movie. It’s a place stained with too much tragedy, too much loss, too much heartache.
“I don’t even drive down that street, and I avoid the mall, too,” wrote Daisy Rothschild, an employee of the National Weather Service, in a response to a recent Aurora Sentinel Facebook post that asked followers about their thoughts on the Century Aurora. “They should have torn it down or made a memorial there.”
But for others, the theater remains what it’s always been: a temporary, entertaining escape.
“I still go (to the theater) frequently, about twice a month,” wrote Sarah Tomase, a project coordinator at the engineering firm Stanley Consultants, on the same Facebook post. “Love the new chairs. Same friendly employees and low prices. It’s probably the safest cinema in the U.S.A. right now.”
Much of the discord is tied to the decision of the theater’s parent company, Texas-based Cinemark Holdings, to keep the facility open following six months of renovations after the massacre. Shortly before the theater reopened on Jan. 17, 2013 with a screening of “The Hobbit,” family members of nine shooting victims sent a letter to Cinemark decrying the event.
“Our family members will never be on this earth again, and a movie ticket and some token words from people who didn’t care enough to reach out to us, nor respond when we reach out to them to talk, is appalling,” the families wrote. “We, the families, recognize your thinly veiled publicity ploy for what it is: A great opportunity for you to distance yourselves and divert public scrutiny from your culpability in this massacre.”
The choice to keep the theater open at least partially stemmed from a public survey the city released two months after the shooting, which asked respondents what the future should hold for the building.
The subject of fault has been a predominant point of contention for Cinemark in the years since the shooting at theater 9 — the Aurora facility has since changed from a numerical naming system to an alphabetical one — and currently faces multiple lawsuits from victims claiming a lack of security at the theater led to the slayings.
Last year, a federal judge denied a request made by Cinemark to dismiss the lawsuits. However, all litigation related to the shootings is postponed until after a verdict on the fate of the accused killer is reached. A former doctoral candidate in neruoscience at the University of Colorado, James Holmes faces 166 counts, including first-degree murder and attempted murder.
For moviegoers such as Angela Milano, the path forward is one made in incremental steps.
“We still go there,” the Denver-based massage therapist wrote on Facebook. “It gets a little easier every time. Baby steps. However, we cannot find it within ourselves to be in (the extreme digital) theater.”
Cinemark did not return multiple requests for comment on this story.
— Staff Writer Brandon Johansson contributed to this report.