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April 3, 2004

2 Movie Chains Agree To Captioning for Deaf

From: Washington Post, DC - Apr 3, 2004

By Carol D. Leonnig Washington
Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2004; Page B01

Two national movie theater chains have agreed to provide captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers in 12 Washington area theaters under a proposed court settlement that would make the region the national leader in providing the technology.

The tentative agreement is being watched across the nation by movie-chain owners and activists for the deaf. Although the proposed settlement between deaf plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit and the AMC and Loews Cineplex chains would not set a legal precedent, it likely would create a symbolic movie-industry standard, said representatives on both sides. But the agreement has generated some controversy within the deaf community, with some saying it does not go far enough.

Ninety-two movie theaters in the United States and 31 in Canada have closed captioning for the deaf, including a theater at Springfield Mall and another at Owings Mills, north of Baltimore.

A federal judge is scheduled to decide by the end of the month whether to approve the settlement. If it proceeds, Washington will have more theaters with closed-captioning than Los Angeles, which has nine. The agreement calls for 11 more theaters to get closed-captioning equipment within two years in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

The theaters would use a system known as rear-window captioning. A deaf or hard-of-hearing moviegoer would be able to watch films through a small plexiglass panel that reflects subtitles flashed from the rear of the theater. The textbook-size panel is attached to a cup holder at the person's theater seat. The technology does not affect how non-deaf moviegoers view the film.

Some leaders in the national deaf community have contended that the plaintiffs should demand open captioning, which would be displayed for the entire audience.

On one point, supporters and opponents who are deaf are in agreement: They say it's impossible to overstate the importance of movies, including the catchphrases that become part of the culture. Darth Vader's ominous orders to execute Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars," Clint Eastwood's taunt of "Go ahead. . . . Make my day" and Cuba Gooding's exhortation to "Show me the money" are part of the American experience they want to share in.

The debate over the agreement played out Thursday at a 31/2 -hour hearing before U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler. She is presiding over the lawsuit, filed in 2000 by a handful of deaf plaintiffs against AMC Entertainment Inc. and Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp.

Aaron Fudenske and Kelby Brick, who are deaf, were among those making passionate arguments about the settlement.

Fudenske, 39, a Department of Transportation analyst from Silver Spring, wants to enjoy a blockbuster film with his 8-year-old daughter in a local theater before she grows up. The deal would make his dreams of sharing "Cinderella" or "Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed" come true.

Fudenske said the settlement gives "a real benefit now" to an estimated 124,000 deaf and hearing-impaired people in the area.

"If we wait, go to trial . . . it may be five or seven more years before I can go to a first-run American film," Fudenske told the judge, aided by a sign-language interpreter. "By then, my daughter will be older and I'll miss seven more years of movies with her."

Brick, a legal advocacy director of the National Association of the Deaf and the father of two boys, said that an estimated 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans deserve much more. Closed-captioning is an inferior technology, Brick has said. He also contends that more area theaters should be made accessible to deaf moviegoers, and in a wider geographic area.

Under the agreement, theaters in Maryland that would get the equipment include two in Silver Spring, one in Laurel and another in Gaithersburg. In Virginia, screens in Alexandria, Woodbridge and Tysons Corner would add the closed-captioning. And in the District, theaters in Georgetown, Union Station, Mazza Galleria and another on Wisconsin Avenue NW would gain the technology.

Brick, 32, of Greenbelt, argues that theater chains could use Washington's settlement to avoid adopting more expensive open-captioning technology worldwide. Advocates have said that open-captioning is generally better for hearing-impaired people and that the technology is opposed by the chains for fear it will annoy other moviegoers.

"This sets a floor that's very low," Brick said in an interview, aided by an interpreter. "Why should the deaf community accept something that is . . . second-best?"

The Coalition for Movie Captioning, an umbrella group of national and local deaf organizations that are critical of the settlement, likewise focused its objections on closed-captioning.

Cheryl Heppner, who chairs the coalition, told Kessler that hearing-impaired people find the panels flimsy, disorienting, hard to use and quick to smudge. Those who use bifocals can barely read what's displayed, said Heppner, adding that the deal should allow a chance to require open captioning in the future.

But John Stanton, a deaf plaintiff and a lawyer with the downtown firm of Howrey Simon Arnold & White, said that he is frustrated at having to wait longer to enjoy films and that the agreement doesn't stop future efforts from adopting other technologies.

"There's always going to be a group that demands everything, and in my opinion they accomplish nothing," he said.

Tom Simeone, attorney for the plaintiffs, agreed: "This settlement will provide . . . more access to movies than anywhere else in the world. To call that a sellout is just unreasonable."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company