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Keeping theaters shut risks permanent harm to movie industry

Keeping theaters shut risks permanent harm to movie industry

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Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered that movie theaters be kept closed, even as he has decided to allow similar public venues to reopen following a drop in coronavirus cases and fatalities.

The governor decided people don’t need theaters because “there are an especially high number of available outdoor and virtual options for members of the public to view and listen to movies and other performances.”

The National Association of Theatre Owners said the unrelenting shutdown in New Jersey and elsewhere has stopped Hollywood from releasing popular movies and put the existence of movie theaters at risk. “We’re not going to be there until a year from now when there’s a vaccine,” said association President and CEO John Fithian. “If we go a year without new movies, it’s over.”

The association, which represents major theater chains such as Regal, AMC and Cinemark, sued Murphy earlier this month. The lawsuit says Murphy’s action is “irrational and unreasonable” since he allows other indoor activities for which there also are outdoor and virtual options, such as shopping malls.

Another is houses of worship, which are allowed to host up to 100 people or 25% of a room’s capacity. Some congregations hold religious gatherings in theaters such as the Regal in Mays Landing, so “a movie theater could host religious services on Sunday morning but would have to close showing movies on Sunday afternoon to an audience of the same size in the same auditorium following the same distancing requirements,” the lawsuit says.

New Jersey, New York and three smaller states haven’t decided when they will allow cinemas to reopen.

Entertainment companies have repeatedly pushed back release dates for movies in the absence of theaters in which to show them. With no new movies to show, theaters haven’t reopened in states that allow it. Earlier this month 1,300 movie houses were open nationwide (including about 300 drive-ins), which left the vast majority of the country’s 5,500 indoor theaters shut.

Hollywood expected enough U.S. theaters to be open to start widely releasing movies next month. The first was scheduled for Friday, a modest Russell Crowe film, “Unhinged.” Potential blockbusters were to soon follow, including Christopher Nolan’s next sci-fi thriller “Tenet” on Aug. 12 and Disney’s $200 million live-action version of “Mulan” on Aug. 21.

Then on Thursday the movie industry put off these and other releases indefinitely — effectively canceling the rest of the summer film season. Some will open overseas instead. Disney will delay future installments of “Avatar” and “Star Wars” by a year as well.

The industry last year had a box office of $4.3 billion in summer, which is its best season. Ticket sales for this year were already down more than 60%. Now nearly the entire summer box office will be lost.

The lawsuit against Murphy is unlikely to prevail since courts have disallowed constitutional challenges to the orders of governors.

Movies have been a mainstay of U.S. entertainment for a century, and American movies have dominated the business globally and given the rest of the world’s people a largely unfiltered view into its culture.

Theaters in less urban areas are more at risk of never reopening. We’d hate to see South Jersey residents lose their movie theaters and be stuck at home, watching small screens, the kind on which Gov. Murphy likes to appear with daily adjustments to his rules for society.

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