Theater operators hope ruling may signal eventual victory

HOLLYWOOD — In a ruling of potentially broad application, a federal court in Cleveland has tossed out a U.S. Justice Dept. suit that contended so-called “stadium seating” flouts the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The ruling, circulated last week, came in a Justice suit against Cinemark Intl., a Dallas-based circuit with 275 theaters and 2,979 screens in 33 states, Latin America, Canada and Taiwan. There was no immediate indication if the U.S. District Court action would be appealed by Justice, which also has sued other circuits including AMC Entertainment, Loews Cineplex and United Artists Theaters.

Meanwhile, the ruling builds on some favorable verdicts for exhibs in private-party actions against several movie chains. Theater operators hope the ruling may signal an eventual victory against critics of stadium seating.

Such theater configurations, which offer better sight lines for most patrons by increasing the height of seats progressively from front to back, make various accommodations for wheelchair-bound moviegoers. But critics have charged the accommodations are insufficient to meet provisions of the ADA.

The Cleveland court found otherwise.

“Stadium seating has transformed the moviegoing experience,” Cinemark CEO Lee Roy Mitchell said afterward. “We strive to have the most modern stadium-style theater circuit in the industry because that is what our customers demand. Since this case put stadium seating under attack, we are gratified on behalf of our customers.”

Requirements met

National Assn. of Theater Owners prexy John Fithian said court decisions to date “state clearly that the theaters involved met the requirements of the ADA.”

He called on Justice to halt efforts to win through litigation and alternately to provide the industry with a rule stating how stadium-seat theaters can provide for handicapped access. The department had refused to do so, choosing instead to sue exhibs over allegedly inadequate arrangements of their own, the NATO boss said.

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