Several hundred theatergoers watching "Skyfall" in south Minneapolis Saturday fled the theater after many smelled what they thought was smoke during the gunfire-filled final minutes of the film.

The source of the sulfuric odor remains a mystery -- some heard it was a prank smoke bomb -- but it sparked an exodus that may have been stoked by lingering fears from recent mass shootings. A manager of the Riverview Theater in the Longfellow area said a majority of the 600 people who were packed into the auditorium exited into the cold night.

"When I smelled that smoke, I thought it was a gunshot," said Justin Eibenholzl, who was watching the film with his girlfriend. "And I didn't know anything other than we shouldn't probably be in here."

It began when people in a middle row stood up and turned around, Eibenholzl said. People then started grabbing their children and rushing toward the exits, as the gunshot-filled audio track of the film's climax blared over the speakers. Someone in the aisle, not an employee, waved their hands and said, "Everyone out," he recalled.

Laura Scher, a former Star Tribune employee who is now a freelance photographer, was sitting in an upper row with her three children. When the smell reached them, she said, "Every[one] panicked. 'There's smoke! Get out!' "

The Riverview's manager, Loren Williams, described it as "a situation where everybody sort of played follow the leader." Williams said he could not smell or see any smoke when he entered the theater minutes later. The Fire Department arrived but soon left.

The voluntary evacuation could have been stirred by recent incidents, such as the mass shooting that took place in the opening minutes of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo., last year. "The fact that there's been incidents happening," Williams said, "people just sort of act now and question later."

A firefighter told Scher that he had heard it was a smoke bomb. Scher said she was disappointed that no staff members directed the crowd and that it took several minutes for the theater to turn on the lights. She also said she feels firefighters should have spent a longer time reviewing the scene.

Williams responded that, based on security camera footage, the lights were turned on within 45 seconds of people standing up. He added that there was no yelling. "I've got a number of e-mails from people who were impressed by the orderliness. People were calm. It was not a mass confusion," Williams said.

The Riverview was playing "Skyfall," the James Bond feature released in November, because it is an intermediate-run theater that shows films after their first run for a reduced price. Tickets were $3.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper