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Top movie theater chains sue New Jersey over COVID-19 closures

The companies, led by the National Association of Theatre Owners, claim that the state's treatment of movie theaters has been "neither fair nor reasonable."
Image: The box office of the AMC theatre in Burbank
The box office of the AMC theatre in Burbank, Calif., on June 30, 2020.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Six leading movie theater chains — including AMC, Cinemark and Regal — filed a lawsuit Monday against the state of New Jersey, claiming a First Amendment right to reopen their locations during the coronavirus pandemic.

The companies, led by the National Association of Theatre Owners, claim that the state's treatment of movie theaters has been "neither fair nor reasonable." They allege that Gov. Phil Murphy's administration has allowed churches, malls, museums and other establishments to reopen without laying out a timetable for the reopening of movie theaters and other entertainment venues.

"Plaintiffs bring this action to ensure that movie theatre are treated equally with other similarly situated places of public assembly, and in order to exercise their First Amendment rights to exhibit films of significant artistic, cultural, political and popular merit," the lawsuit says.

In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, the theater chains take issue with Murphy's executive order allowing indoor religious gatherings limited to 100 people or 25 percent capacity, claiming this represents an "unconstitutional and unlawful" distinction.

"There is no rational basis for Defendants’ distinction between, for example, places of worship and movie theatres for purposes of reopening, yet Defendants have allowed places of worship to reopen while movie theatres must remain closed, with no scheduled date for reopening,” the lawsuit says.

Murphy's administration has said movie theaters can open their doors again under Stage 3 of the state's coronavirus-era protocols, a phase that "may include ... limited entertainment," according to a state webpage.

The lawsuit claims that representatives for the major chains have met with state government officials to share "detailed safety protocols that would be implemented for the reopening of movie theatres." And yet, the chains allege, the state has still "provided no explanation for their disparate treatment of entities with similar risk levels" for COVID-19.

A spokeswoman said Tuesday that the governor's office does not comment on pending litigation, and a spokesman for the New Jersey attorney general's office declined to comment.

Murphy has pumped the brakes on reopening parts of the state economy amid mounting concerns about coronavirus infection spikes in other parts of the U.S. He said last week that New Jersey's "multistage approach uses science, data and facts to determine which businesses and activities can reopen according to their risk level and challenges they face to safeguard public health."

AMC, the country's largest theater chain, is tentatively planning on reopening hundreds of locations in late July, and August could see the release of two high-profile movies — the espionage thriller "Tenet" and the live-action remake of "Mulan" — that have been repeatedly delayed.

The film industry, like virtually every business that relies on indoor mass gatherings, has been badly hit by the pandemic, raising questions about the long-term health of the theatrical distribution model.