By Keith Coffman
AURORA, Colo. (Reuters) - The suburban Denver movie theater where 12 people were killed in a shooting rampage at a Batman film last summer reopened on Thursday for a private "night of remembrance" and a screening of "The Hobbit" for survivors and others connected to the tragedy.
The event, held just shy of six months after the massacre, was not heavily attended despite a personal welcome from Colorado's governor and offers of free movie passes and popcorn.
The owners of the theater, Cinemark USA, had invited some 2,000 guests, mostly moviegoers who lived through the shooting and relatives of those killed, along with police, firefighters and other emergency personnel who responded to the crime scene.
But a crowd numbering no more than several hundred people, including members of the media, turned out for the event, greeted by dignitaries including Governor John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Aurora, Steve Hogan, Cinemark USA's chief executive, Tim Warner, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Denver, Samuel Aquila.
Some of the attendees embraced one another as they arrived at the revamped multiplex, and vendors walked through the lobby offering guests free candy, buttered popcorn and soft drinks.
But in a letter to Cinemark, families of nine murder victims took offense at the offer to tour "the very theater where our loved ones lay dead on the floor for over 15 hours."
"We would give anything to wipe the carnage of that night out of our minds' eye," the letter said. "Thank you for reminding us how your quest for profits has blinded your leadership and made you so callous as to be oblivious to our mental anguish."
A spokeswoman for Cinemark declined to comment.
Among the survivors who attended the event on Thursday evening was Jansen Young, 21, whose boyfriend, Navy veteran Jonathan Blunk, died shielding her from harm.
Young, who was unhurt in the shooting, referred to Blunk as "my guardian angel." She recalled how he pushed her to the floor at the first sound of gunshots and covered her body with his. He was 26.
"I heard his last few breaths," she said, adding that she was overcome by emotion as she sat again in the old Theater 9, which Cinemark has renamed "Auditorium I - Extreme Digital Cinema."
"It was so hard. I didn't expect to go in there and cry," she said before "The Hobbit" was shown.
The theater will offer free movie passes to the public at large from Friday through Sunday. The 16-screen multiplex, rechristened the Century Aurora, will then close and reopen for good on January 25
It had been shuttered since July 20, when a gunman opened fire during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," killing 12 and wounding dozens of others. Former graduate student James Holmes is charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder.
Hickenlooper told attendees that reopening the theater was a sign of a return to normalcy in the city of 325,000. "We need to make sure we don't allow evil to triumph over good," he said.
Hogan issued a video statement before the reopening, calling it "part of a healing process." He said three-quarters of Aurora citizens who responded to an online survey conducted by the city requesting input on the future of the multiplex site said they wanted the theater to reopen.
Cinemark is the third-largest movie exhibitor in the United States, according to a company profile.
The Texas-based theater chain reported a 1 percent year-over-year dip in revenue to $636.6 million in the third quarter of 2012, the time frame when the shooting occurred.
Cinemark has refrained from commenting publicly about the massacre. Some victims have sued the chain over the rampage, charging that the theater should have had more security because it was aware of previous crimes in or near the multiplex.
In a court filing seeking dismissal of the lawsuits, Cinemark denied it was aware of other crimes at the theater, but even if true, "such an event would be insufficient to make a madman's mass murder foreseeable."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Xavier Briand)