The AMC movie theater chain has agreed to install closed captioning devices in all of its digitally-equipped theaters in Illinois by the end of 2014, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced Wednesday.
comes two years after Chicago-based Equip for Equality approached the attorney general's Disability Rights Bureau to complain about the lack of captioning in movie theaters. The attorney general's office decided to approach AMC as the state's largest theater operator, with about 5,000 screens in 320 theaters.
The devices will be installed as AMC theaters are switched to digital projection, according to Noel MacDonald, AMC's vice president for operations. First priority will be given to the 41 theaters in the Chicago area, he said. "We are happy to add this last piece to our digital conversion," he said.
The agreement also calls for the installation of description devices for people who are blind or have other visual impairments. These headphones deliver a play-by-play description of a movie's action and setting.
"This is a spectacular achievement in the civil rights of people with disabilities," said Amy Peterson, senior attorney with Equip for Equality
. "I hope others in Illinois will follow AMC's lead."
"It is a rare day when we get to celebrate success," said Amber Smock, program director of Access Living, recalling how disappointed she was as a child when she could not hear or understand the movie "Peter Pan."
The announcement is a great step forward for people living with hearing disabilities in Illinois, said Marsha Kopp, president of ALDA Chicago, the local chapter of the Association of Late-Deafened Adults Inc. "It means we can attend the movies when we like and share the experience with our hearing family members and friends," Kopp said.
The agreement requires that 25 percent of AMC's digitally-equipped theaters in the state have closed captioning by June 1, 2012; 50 percent by Dec. 1, 2012; and 100 percent by April 1, 2014.
It does not necessarily mean that all AMC theaters will have closed captioning. It states that all digitally-equipped theaters will have closed captioning installed, but does not require AMC to convert all its theaters to digital.
The new captioning devices, which are on a bendable, adjustable arm that sticks in the seat's cupholder, replace the Rear Window system that has been used in some theaters for more than a decade. That system, which depended on captions reflected in a mirror, was only available at some showings and required patrons to sit only in certain seats. With the new system, Madigan said, theater patrons will be able to have captioning at any showing in any equipped theater.
AMC's IMAX theaters and certain special showings, such as Metropolitan Opera performances, are not included in the settlement requiring captioning, because the distributors of their programming do not yet include caption or description tracks in the movies, according to Sun Dee Larson, AMC's vice president for film marketing and communications.
In fact, only about 90 percent of movies that are released to theaters include a caption track, Larson said, and captioning devices will not work unless the distributor includes that track. She said she hopes that increased demand will drive distributors to include caption and description tracks in all movies.
Madigan said one of the reasons she is pleased with the agreement is that it was reached without litigation, although there is a decade-long history of legal action
in other states by advocates attempting to push theater chains, including AMC, to provide equal access to the movies for people with hearing and vision impairments. ALDA Inc., the parent organization of ALDA Chicago, worked with other disability-rights advocates to reach a 2011 settlement in California
under which AMC agreed to install closed captioning in all its theaters in that state by late 2013.
Asked about other theater chains, Madigan said, "They're going to be next."
Regal Cinemas, the nation's largest movie theater chain, and Cinemark, another large chain, also have committed to installing closed captioning
as they convert to digital projection, stating that the installation by the end of 2012. Neither chain has committed to a timetable for Illinois.
Another frontier for advocacy is the internet. Few movies, TV shows or other videos streamed on the internet are captioned. The National Association of the Deaf has a lawsuit pending against Netflix
over this issue.