Hearing-impaired get movie treat

Shannon Sauro totoro2 at dolphin.upenn.edu
Sat May 8 16:53:13 UTC 2004

>>From Yahoo!News

Hearing-impaired get movie treat

Fri May 7, 9:40 AM ET  Add Top Stories - Chicago Tribune to My Yahoo!

By Paul Singer Washington Bureau

When Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" character sneered, "Go ahead--make my
day," the line became such a cultural phenomenon that President Ronald Reagan
(news - web sites) repeated it in daring Congress to pass a tax increase he
could veto.

But John Stanton and millions of other deaf Americans did not recognize the
reference. The line comes from a 1983 movie that--like virtually all other
American movies released since the end of the silent film era--had no
subtitles or captions for the hearing-impaired.

Now a lawsuit filed by Stanton and two other deaf moviegoers against two major
movie chains may change that, paving the way for a broad expansion of
captioning devices for the hearing-impaired in theaters throughout the

In a settlement approved by a federal judge last week, the theater chains--AMC
Theaters and Loews Cineplex--agreed to install individual captioning devices
in a dozen theaters in the D.C. area over the next year. They also agreed to
build the system into at least one screen in all their new theater complexes
in the region.

"I'm probably going to be deaf for the rest of my life," said Stanton, a
Washington lawyer. "I hope I'm going to live to see the day where almost every
movie is caption-accessible. ... I think our settlement is a very good
starting point to get that process going."

Settlement sets new standard

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler approved the settlement April 30. While it
applies only to the Washington area, it "will set the standard for what other
communities, at a very minimum, should be offering," she said.

The deal calls for use of Rear Window captioning technology, designed to help
hearing-impaired moviegoers without blocking others' view, that provides the
user a transparent plastic panel attached to a seat's cup holder. The captions
are displayed on the back wall of the theater, and the reflection is visible
on the panel but invisible to patrons in adjoining seats.

The technology currently is available in only one movie theater in the
Washington area and fewer than 100 nationwide. Six screens in the Chicago area
have Rear Window technology, including the AMC City North and the AMC Yorktown
in Lombard. There are no closed-caption screens elsewhere in Illinois.

An AMC spokesman said that in addition to the Washington-area court
settlement, the chain has made a voluntary commitment to install Rear Window
in all its new theater complexes--but not for every screen. AMC also will
retrofit at least one theater in all 210 of its complexes nationwide to
provide captioning technology.

Loews declined to comment on its plans.

Stanton's lawsuit argued that theaters without captions violate the Americans
With Disabilities Act, which requires businesses to establish reasonable
accommodations for people with disabilities.

Two other lawsuits seeking to force theaters to install captioning technology--
one in Oregon, one in Texas--have failed, leaving the D.C. settlement as the
first lawsuit to result in an agreement to add captioning.

"What the settlement does is provide a model that can be replicated in other
communities around the country," said Todd Houston, executive director of the
Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

David Monroe, the lawyer who negotiated the settlement on behalf of AMC and
Loews, said even more captioning devices may be installed nationwide if it
makes economic sense.

"If it turns out that a lot of additional people come to see captioned films,
that makes it more likely that they will make more captioned films available,"
Monroe said.

But some advocates for the deaf are disappointed that the settlement does not
go further.

"It's a drop in the bucket," said Cheryl Heppner, chairwoman of the Coalition
for Movie Captioning, an alliance of advocacy groups for the deaf and hard of
hearing. The coalition says the deal requires only "the ability to show
captioned movies on roughly 5 percent of AMC/Loews screens forever."

Other advocates say the Rear Window system is cumbersome and that a better
approach would be "open captions"--subtitles projected on the screen and
visible to all patrons.

Studio and theater executives adamantly oppose that idea, saying such
subtitles would be a distraction to their hearing clientele and would
interfere with a director's creative control of the image on the screen.

Richard King, a spokesman for AMC Theaters, said his company has tested open
captioning and "we have found that is something that is not appealing to
moviegoers [who] are not hearing-impaired."

It is an open question whether there is an economic incentive for theaters to
install captioning devices.

Costs $10,000 to install

The Rear Window systems cost about $10,000 to install, and King pointed out
that there are no data to prove that the technology brings in flocks of deaf
or hard-of-hearing patrons.

Tawny Holmes, student body president at Gallaudet University, a D.C. school
for hearing-impaired students, said deaf students looking for evening
activities do not immediately think of going to the movies, mostly because
they don't expect to find a captioned film.

"But when there is an announcement that there is going to be a captioned
movie, they go in droves," she said, speaking through a sign-language

Studios generally produce captions for the DVD or video versions of their
films, and they already produce captions for some theatrical releases at
minimal cost--about $50,000 per movie, said an executive at a major Hollywood
movie studio who asked that his name not be used because of potential
litigation. "The cost is the same whether it's in 12 theaters or 1,200," he

But the executive noted that the same is not true for theater owners, for whom
the $10,000 cost per auditorium makes it prohibitively expensive to install
the system in all 36,000 screens across the country.

Posted by Shannon Sauro

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