When a gunman opened fire into an audience watching a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20, the tragedy touched moviegoers and others nationwide. It also cast a new shadow over an industry already facing its own business challenges.

Now that the sanctity of theaters has been violated, investors will be watching whether those challenges grow more acute. Will audiences return in enough volume to produce sustainable profits for the likes of Cinemark or Regal Entertainment (NYSE: RGC), or will they choose to stay home and wait for streamed versions of their favorite movies?

‘The Dark Knight,’ rising

Audiences haven’t yet abandoned Batman. According to the Associated Press, “The Dark Knight Rises” earned more than $160 million during its opening weekend, a new record for 2-D films and the third-largest opening for any film in any format.

The last in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy starring the DC Comics character, “The Dark Knight Rises” also earned more than $37.1 million in the first two weekdays following its opening, Box Office Mojo reports. By contrast, Marvel’s “The Avengers,” now a billion-dollar blockbuster for Walt Disney’s (NYSE: DIS) Marvel Studios, earned $36.6 million over a comparable period.

Fool.com asked readers if they had seen the film. The results were released two days following the shooting. Thirty-five percent responded that they had already seen the film at least once. Another 45 percent said they planned to see the film, while 5 percent hadn’t made up their mind. Moviegoers apparently still want to see Christian Bale’s Batman battle the villain Bane, played by actor Tom Hardy.

A ragged curtain

Less clear is whether “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Avengers” and big-ticket films like them are the exceptions rather than the rule. Audiences may choose to rent romantic comedies or new Oscar-worthy dramas long after they’ve left theaters.

Recent history shows moviegoers have become more fickle. For example, Regal Entertainment has reported declining revenue over the past two years. Cinemark has enjoyed modest but slowing growth over the same time frame. AMC Entertainment, one of the nation’s largest theater operators, has also enjoyed revenue gains but at the cost of profits: AMC has reported losses in three of its last four fiscal years.

The theater in your home

Audiences are staying home because they can. Large-screen high-definition televisions now cost only a few hundred dollars versus thousands just a few years ago. Computers, gaming consoles, and even tablets have become just as capable of showing high-quality films as the local multiplex. Streaming services such as Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and Amazon.com’s Instant Video provide the content.

Netflix, in particular, says a lot about the rise of stay-at-home moviegoers. Earlier this month, chief executive Reed Hastings announced that customers used the service to stream more than 1 billion hours of programming in June. Netflix has roughly 30.1 million members worldwide today, up from 25.6 million a year ago at this time.

Fighting back with premium showings

A growing number of cinemas now feature dine-in options or even bars in the hopes that audiences will dispose of more of their disposable income when seeing a movie. According to Yelp, at least five multiplexes in the Washington area now serve alcohol.

Similarly, some operators have struck deals to outfit theaters for premium showings. In the case of “The Dark Knight Rises,” director Nolan included 72 minutes of footage shot with wide-screen cameras supplied by Imax (NYSE: IMAX). Screens refitted to show the added footage accounted for $23.8 million in gate receipts over the weekend, a new record, according to Box Office Mojo.

Such performances tend to be the exception rather than the norm for theaters such as the Century 16. And that, too, is a tragedy for an industry that’s been struggling with theater closings, box office bombs, low salaries and missing profits for long before anyone had heard of James Holmes.

Tim Beyers owned shares of Walt Disney and had a stock and options position in Netflix at the time of publication. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Netflix and Walt Disney. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney, IMAX, Amazon.com and Netflix.