CITY HALL — A hearing-impaired teen in Santa Monica got his wish this week when a local theater chain announced that it would provide closed captions in four screens in one of its Downtown theaters.
John Butchko was thrilled to receive the news.
He’s been advocating in front of public boards and commissions for the last 52 days in an attempt to get AMC Theatres to install special devices that allow the deaf or hard-of-hearing to view dialogue without displaying it on the screen.
The company already had the technology, but told Butchko that technical difficulties prevented them from deploying it in Santa Monica theaters.
That left Butchko and others with no option but to drive 15 miles to a theater in North Hollywood to watch films.
There are 71 other hearing-impaired youth in the local school district alone, as well as adults with hearing loss and non-English speakers who may want to catch a film, he said.
The last movie Butchko saw in Santa Monica was “Over the Hedge” when he was 4 years old.
“I still don’t know what that movie is about,” he said.
Now, four screens at the AMC 7 Theatre on the Third Street Promenade will be enabled with CaptiView, a device slightly larger than a cell phone, which is shielded so that other movie-goers can’t see it.
It fits into the cupholder of the seat, and the captions are transmitted wirelessly so that the viewer can watch the movie and glance down and see the captions that go with the scene.
That works better for the hard-of-hearing, but are somewhat lacking for the deaf, who have to take their eyes off the screen to read every word, said John Waldo, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, a law firm in Berkeley, Calif.
Waldo’s firm represents the Association of Late-Deafened Adults, who asked AMC to provide caption-viewing equipment. The chain agreed to do so once its movie theaters had transitioned from traditional 35-millimeter film to digital projection.
AMC Santa Monica 7 has digital projection, but until recently, no captions.
The company blamed a technical issue, which Waldo said stemmed from problems trying to get two pieces of technology made by different companies to work together.
The current solution isn’t permanent, said Ryan Noonan, director of public relations for AMC, and the company is working toward equipping every auditorium with technology to service the hearing impaired.
“At AMC, we want everyone to be excited about coming to the movies, and part of that goal is to ensure we have the proper assisted moviegoing amenities at our locations,” he said.
Butchko’s work to raise awareness about the problem ran concurrently with AMC’s efforts to fix the problem, said Rod Gould, Santa Monica’s city manager who had was moved to call the theater company by Butchko’s speech at a recent City Council meeting.
“It has taken a bit of time for the technology and marketing to become synchronized. I am glad it is now a reality,” he said.
Others who heard Butchko speak also advocated on his behalf, including the local Parent Teacher Association Council, which drafted a resolution of support.
His efforts were so successful that people in other cities have reached out requesting his help in getting captions in their local theaters as well.
Butchko is hesitant to try his hand in another city, although he agreed to work with advocates one-on-one to teach them how he approached local officials.
Nanci Linke-Ellis, a member of the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission and long-time campaigner for captioning, believes his model can be replicated elsewhere to empower the hearing-impaired community to rally for services like captions.
“It’s a terrific strategy, and I’m going to write it up and use it as a template for other incorporated cities,” Linke-Ellis said.
The message was particularly powerful because it came from a young person who expressed an earnest desire to see movies so he could participate in normal social life, she said.
“I think that’s so compelling because almost everyone is a parent or has a sibling and they can relate to it from that standpoint,” she said.
Butchko doesn’t seem to have grand designs for the future of the movement right now — he’s just excited to see “Life of Pi” this weekend at a movie theater close to his own home.