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2301 M Cinema LLC v. Silver Cinemas Acquisition Co.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 28, 2018

2301 M CINEMA LLC, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
SILVER CINEMAS ACQUISITON CO., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          EMMET G. SULLIVAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         To show a film, a movie theater must obtain a license from the film's distributor. The case before the Court involves the competitive market between theaters for exclusive licenses to show specialty films. Plaintiffs-2301 M Cinema d/b/a West End Cinema (“West End Cinema”), the Avalon Theatre Project, Inc. (“the Avalon”), the Denver Film Society, and the Cinema Detroit (collectively, “plaintiffs”)-bring this action against Silver Cinemas Acquisition Co. d/b/a Landmark Theatres and its parent corporation 2929 Entertainment, LP (collectively, “Landmark”). Plaintiffs allege that Landmark violated federal antitrust law by using its national market power to coerce film distributors into granting Landmark exclusive licenses, preventing plaintiffs and other independent theaters from showing specialty films. Plaintiffs' four-count complaint charges Landmark with: (1) circuit dealing in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act; (2) using its monopoly power in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act; (3) attempting to use its monopoly power in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act; and (4) interfering with plaintiffs' business relations.

         Pending before the Court is Landmark's motion to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint. See Defs.' Mot., ECF No. 16. After careful consideration of the motion, the response, the reply thereto, and the applicable law, Landmark's motion to dismiss is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         II. Background

         Plaintiffs are four independent, community theaters that primarily show specialty films. Compl., ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 14-17. Specialty films include “independent films, art films, foreign films, and documentaries.” Id. ¶ 24. Unlike mainstream commercial films, specialty films are not intended to appeal to a broad audience and are therefore released less widely than commercial films. Id. The first plaintiff, West End Cinema, operated in the District of Columbia from 2010 until 2015. Id. ¶ 14. In 2015, West End Cinema was “forced” out of business, allegedly by Landmark's anticompetitive licensing practices. Id. Landmark leased the West End Cinema's space and has since opened a Landmark theater in its place. Id. The Avalon is another independent theater located in the District of Columbia. Id. ¶ 15. The Denver Film Society is a nonprofit organization located in Denver, Colorado that provides specialty film programming via “year-round screening, film festivals, and other special events.” Id. ¶ 16. It operates the Sie FilmCenter, a specialty film theater. Id. Finally, Cinema Detroit is a non-profit specialty film theater located in Detroit, Michigan. Id. ¶ 17.

         Defendant Landmark is a Delaware corporation and subsidiary of 2929 Entertainment, LP. Id. ¶ 18. It operates fifty-one specialty film theaters in twenty-two geographic markets nationwide. Id. It is “the largest specialty film movie theater chain in the country” and is purportedly opening new theaters on a regular basis. Id.

         Both plaintiffs and Landmark are “exhibitors, ” the industry term for movie theaters. Id. ¶ 21. Exhibitors must negotiate with film distributors for licenses to exhibit films at their theaters. See Id. ¶ 22. Distributors are the entities responsible for marketing the film; they act as a “middleman” between the production studio and the exhibitor. Id. ¶ 5. Generally, a distributor's income for each film is tied to the revenue earned by the exhibitor during its run of the film. See Id. ¶¶ 75-76. License agreements between distributors and exhibitors specify the terms under which the exhibitor may show a particular film. See Id. ¶¶ 21-22, 25. In some instances, license agreements may include “clearances, ” or an exclusive right to show a film. Id. ¶ 25. In acquiescing to a clearance, a distributor agrees not to license a film to any other exhibitor, or to specific exhibitors, in the same geographic market. Id. Clearances are generally negotiated either for the first few weeks a film is shown, a “first-run” clearance, or for the entire period a film is screened by an exhibitor, a “day and date” clearance. See Id. ¶¶ 21, 25, 28. Clearances must be negotiated on a theater-by-theater, film-by-film basis. Therefore, exhibitors may not engage in circuit-dealing, whereby “a dominant movie theater chain, ” known as a “circuit, ” “uses its market power to obtain preferential agreements, particularly clearances, from distributors for the licensing of films . . . in multiple geographic markets.” Id. ¶ 28 (citing United States v. Paramount Pictures, 334 U.S. 131, 154-55 (1948)).

         Plaintiffs allege that Landmark, as the “dominant theater ‘circuit' for the exhibition of specialty films in the United States, ” leverages its market position to obtain clearance agreements nationwide. Id. ¶¶ 29, 30. Rather than negotiating clearances on an individual theater-by-theater, film-by-film basis, plaintiffs assert that Landmark obtains “blanket clearances” for more than one film or theater from distributors that accede to Landmark's demands for fear of retribution and loss of Landmark's business. Id. ¶ 29. Plaintiffs seek an injunction, treble damages, costs and fees, and actual damages. See Id. ¶¶ 89-90, 97-98, 102-04, 112-13.

         III. Standard of Review

          A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quotations and citations omitted).

         Despite this liberal pleading standard, to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotations and citations omitted). A claim is facially plausible when the facts pled in the complaint allow the court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The standard does not amount to a “probability requirement, ” but it does require more than a “sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.

         “[W]hen ruling on a defendant's motion to dismiss [pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)], a judge must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Atherton v. D.C. Office of the Mayor, 567 F.3d 672, 681 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (quotations and citations omitted). In addition, the court must give the plaintiff the “benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Even so, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements” are not sufficient to state a claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         “To survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a claim in an antitrust case, plaintiffs must do more than simply paraphrase the language of the antitrust laws or state in conclusory terms that the non-movant has violated those laws.” WAKA LLC v. DC Kickball, 517 F.Supp.2d 245, 249 (D.D.C. 2007) (citing Dial A Car, Inc. v. Transp., Inc., 884 F.Supp. 584, 588 (D.D.C. 1995), aff'd 82 F.3d 484 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). “[I]f [the plaintiff] claims an antitrust violation, but the facts he narrates do not at least outline or adumbrate such a violation, he will get nowhere merely by dressing them up in the language of antitrust.” Dial A Car, 884 F.Supp. at 588 (quoting Sutliff, Inc. v. Donovan Companies, Inc., 727 F.2d 648 (7th Cir. 1984)) (internal quotation marks omitted). That said, because “the proof is largely in the hands of the alleged conspirators, ” dismissal procedures “should be used sparingly in complex antitrust litigation” until the plaintiff is given ample opportunity for discovery. Poller v. Columbia Broad. Sys., 368 U.S. 464, 473 (1962).

         IV. Analysis

         Landmark moves to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), putting forth several arguments. See Defs.' Mot., ECF No. 16. First, it contends that 2929 Entertainment should be dismissed, because the complaint does not allege that the parent corporation was responsible for the actions of its subsidiary. Id. at 29.[1] Second, Landmark argues that plaintiffs fail to state a plausible circuit dealing claim (Count I) because plaintiffs fail to allege: (1) that Landmark wielded its circuit power to coerce distributors; (2) concerted action or agreement; and (3) an antitrust injury. Id. at 13-25. Third, Landmark argues that plaintiffs fail to state a plausible monopolization or attempted monopolization claim (Counts II and III) because plaintiffs fail to allege: (1) that Landmark exercised leveraging conduct; and (2) that Landmark has monopoly power. Id. at 25-28. Finally, Landmark contends that plaintiffs fail to state a plausible tortious interference claim (Count IV). Id. at 28-29. The Court analyzes each argument in turn.

         A. Defendant 2929 Entertainment, LP is Dismissed Without Prejudice

          Landmark argues that its parent corporation 2929 Entertainment should be dismissed because the complaint does not allege that it was responsible for the actions of its subsidiaries. Defs.' Mot., ECF No. 16 at 29. Plaintiffs agree and reserve the right to seek leave to amend the complaint and add 2929 Entertainment as a defendant as discovery unfolds. Pls.' Opp'n, ECF No. 17 at 37. Therefore, the Court GRANTS Landmark's motion and dismisses without prejudice defendant 2929 Entertainment, LP from this action.

         B. Plaintiffs Sufficiently Allege a Circuit Dealing Claim

         Landmark argues that Count I must be dismissed because plaintiffs fail to state a plausible circuit dealing claim in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Defs.' Mot., ECF No. 16 at 13-25. First, Landmark argues that plaintiffs fail to allege that Landmark wielded its national circuit power to coerce distributors to agree to clearance agreements. Id. at 13-19. Landmark also argues that plaintiffs do not allege that it negotiated any unlawful blanket clearances covering more than one theater or film. Id. Instead, it contends that plaintiffs merely allege a series of theater-by-theater, city-by-city negotiated clearance agreements for individual films, a lawful industry practice. Id. at 14-18. Plaintiffs respond that they allege “six specific instances of Landmark's circuit dealing at work.” ...


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