In one of the bolder attempts to get movie theaters reopened in the age of coronavirus, three of the biggest theater chains in the country (AMC, Cinemark, and Regal) filed suit against the State of New Jersey back in July. They argued that keeping theaters closed while other businesses and places of worship were allowed to reopen was “a violation of [their] First Amendment rights of freedom of speech.” The National Association of Theater Owners of New Jersey hoped that a judge would agree, and force the state to permit theaters to resume operations — a move that could then conceivably be replicated in other parts of the country where the government has extended theater closures.

Things didn’t work out as planned. Today, a judge in New Jersey ruled against the theaters, saying their rights were not violated by the coronavirus closures. You can read the judge’s entire opinion at Variety, but here is a key summation:

The theaters had argued that the state was discriminating against them by allowing churches to remain open while theaters were ordered to close. But in his 33-page opinion, Martinotti found that the order is content-neutral, and that the state had shown it was a reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can’t fault companies for wanting to reopen, stay in business, and so on. But “protecting people from getting ill — possibly fatally — inside my theater infringes on my right to say things” always felt like a questionable legal argument to me.

Whatever the legalities of this particular decision, it has major ramifications for the theater industry beyond New Jersey. We’re less than two weeks from the supposed release of The New Mutants, followed by the American premiere of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. This ruling theater chains will almost certainly not be able to force a mass reopening by then. And without all those theaters in the Northeast and elsewhere, the grosses on these early fall releases will be necessarily diminished. And when the box office receipts come in, other studios are going to think long and hard about their own fall release plans.

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