Movie theater owners bracing for new rules for patrons with visual, hearing disabilities

Owners and regulators don’t see eye-to-eye on requirements


Mark O'Meara, owner of University Mall Theatres, models an individual closed captioning device and headphones during a film screening in one of his theatres in Fairfax, Virginia. (J. Lawler Duggan/For Capital Business)
August 18, 2014

When Mark O’Meara decided to upgrade his two small movie theaters from analog to digital screens — a $600,000 investment — he elected to shell out $40,000 extra to outfit them with the latest technology to accommodate those with hearing or vision disabilities.

New in-ear audio description devices provide blind individuals with a running narration layered on top of the dialogue to convey what’s happening on screen. Meanwhile, for patrons who cannot hear, O’Meara now has individual closed captioning devices that fit inside the cup holders and offer scrolling text synced to the dialogue and sounds in the film.

“It’s really cool, the technology has gotten so much more sophisticated,” said O’Meara, who owns University Mall Theatre and Cinema Arts Theatre, both in Fairfax. More importantly, he said, “it makes it so much easier for those people to come out and enjoy the movies, and from a theater owner’s perspective, that’s what we’re all about.”

Question is, how many of those devices does each of his theaters need?

On that issue, it appears O’Meara and federal regulators don’t see eye-to-eye.

New rules proposed by the Department of Justice would require theater owners to equip each location with enough closed captioning and audio description devices to serve roughly 2 percent of their seating capacity. Owners must also offer assisted listening services — a slightly more dated technology that simply amplifies the sound for individuals who are hard of hearing.

The onus is on film studios to produce and supply the descriptive narration and the subtitle captions. Under the proposed rules, which would amend part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, owners would be required to have the necessary equipment on hand to deliver those features anytime the studio has made them available.

“This proposed rule will allow all Americans, including those with disabilities, to fully participate in the moviegoing experience,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement announcing the rules, later calling the proposals “an important step to ensure consistent access for people with vision and hearing disabilities.”

A couple percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but O’Meara says that his current supply — which amounts to less than half that — has proved to be more than sufficient.

Right now, he has about a dozen assisted listening devices at the larger cinema (1,100 seats) and six at the smaller one (590 seats), as well as two closed captioning devices.

Despite advertising their availability over the past couple years, he says the devices have been used only sparingly. During an average month, he says one patron may use the closed captioning at Cinema Arts Theatre, with usage at the University Mall “only slightly higher.”

Under the proposed regulations, he would have to nearly double the number of assisted listening devices at each location and up the number of captioning descriptive audio devices from roughly a handful of each to more than 30 of each. Most of the devices cost several hundred dollars, so all told, complying with the proposed rules would run him almost $20,000.

”That’s just prohibitively expensive, and it’s way more than we have ever needed in the last two years,” he said.

Jon Goldstein — who previously helped run a small theater in Bethesda (which closed earlier this year) and is now a partner at two cinemas in Pennsylvania and another five in Michigan — finds himself in a similar position. His theaters currently offer the assisted listening but have not added the more recent technology, including the captioning devices.

“In my 10 years, those [assisted listening] devices have been sufficient,” he said, adding that he has never been asked for a captioning device. “So that’s the thing with this ruling, it’s not something that has ever been brought up to me as a problem.”

That said, O’Meara and Goldstein both acknowledged that requiring cinemas to have these more modern devices on hand may encourage more visual- and hearing-impaired individuals to consider going to the movies.

”What we’re trying to say is, ‘Let’s just be realistic and do a little testing to figure out how many we need,’ ” O’Meara said.

If finalized, the rules would give owners of digital movie theaters six months to comply with the rules. On its Web site, the Justice Department notes that small theater owners could request an exemption from full compliance for a given year if they can adequately demonstrate that complying “will result in an undue burden.” Officials from the agency did not respond to requests for further comment on that process.

Despite their concerns, O’Meara and Goldstein say they plan to comply with the rules.

“It’s tough as a business owner, because you never want to see that you suddenly have to spend a lot of money on something,” Goldstein said. “But what if that person you were spending the money to accommodate was your child, or your relative — how would you feel about it then? I think you have to look at it that way.”

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.
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