DOWNTOWN — John Butchko, like most 13-year-old boys, would really like to see the new James Bond movie “Skyfall,” but he’s got a problem.
Butchko has hearing loss, and the largest theater chain in Santa Monica, AMC, has not yet installed a functioning closed-caption system in its theaters.
He, like 71 other deaf or hard-of-hearing children in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and an unknown number of older adults in Santa Monica, have to drive almost 15 miles to a location in North Hollywood to see a film.
Not only is Butchko a movie buff — mainly action/adventure, but anything good, he said — the inability to see a film puts a damper on his social life.
“(Movies are) a large part of the conversation in school, and if I haven’t seen them, I can’t participate in that,” Butchko said.
Butchko is taking matters into his own hands.
As part of his eighth grade community service requirement, Butchko has spent the last month approaching city officials for help to put pressure on AMC to add one of a variety of technologies to its theaters that would allow people with limited or no hearing to experience modern cinema.
He’s gotten help from his family as well as Disabilities Commissioner Nanci Linke-Ellis, a long-time advocate for captioning in theaters.
He made an appearance at the Disabilities Commission Monday, and plans to go before the Planning Commission and then the City Council within the coming two months.
It’s a big issue for Butchko, who hasn’t seen a movie in his hometown since he was taken to the animated film “Over the Hedge” when he was 4 years old.
“I still don’t know what that movie is about,” Butchko said.
In general, he only sees movies in the theater when he goes to visit his grandparents in Las Vegas. Many of the theaters have closed captions there, he said.
AMC committed to installing caption-viewing options within a few years, but John and his mother, Leslie Butchko, want to speed up the process.
City Hall is in a unique position to do so.
AMC Theaters has been working for years to build a new, 70,000-square-foot movie theater in Santa Monica complete with a restaurant and lounge, something city officials hope will become an anchor for visitors coming in on the new Exposition Light Rail Line.
The theater company and its development partner, Metropolitan Pacific Capital, must get a development agreement to build it. That’s a contract between the developers and City Hall that allows the developer to exceed height and density restrictions set down in the zoning code in return for special benefits.
It might be possible to work in a requirement that the theater company include closed captioning technology in its theaters, said City Councilmember Bob Holbrook, although that wouldn’t cover other theaters in Santa Monica.
“I think it’s possible to do an ordinance, not just for one theater operator,” he said. “Does everyone need to do it on every screen? No. But they have to go 12 to 13 miles away to see (a movie).”
He hopes the City Council will do what they need to do to make closed captions an option in Santa Monica.
The agreement to install caption-viewing capabilities came out of a letter sent by the Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, Calif., an international organization representing the Association of Late-Deafened Adults, asking the theater company to provide equipment to view captions, John Waldo, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, wrote in an e-mail.
“AMC responded that it would do so throughout California once it converted its movie theaters from traditional 35-millimeter film projection to digital projection, and ADLA and AMC signed an agreement to that effect,” Waldo wrote.
The AMC Santa Monica 7 theater already has digital projection, but no captions.
The theater company blames technical difficulties that have prevented “some theaters,” including the AMC Santa Monica 7, from acquiring the caption viewing ability.
“While we have experienced technical issues with the conversion at some theatres, including the AMC Santa Monica 7, we are working diligently with our vendors to ensure those issues are resolved as quickly as possible to make sure everyone can enjoy a movie at AMC,” said an AMC spokesperson.
Waldo, who is familiar with the Santa Monica theater, wrote that the issue stemmed from problems trying to get two pieces of technology needed to display the captions to “talk” to one another because they are made by two different companies.
AMC wants to use CaptiView devices, 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 the glance down and see the captions that go with the scene.
These devices work well for the hard of hearing, but haven’t gotten a glowing reception from the deaf, who have to read every word, Waldo said.
Other options include glasses that display the captions on the inside of the lens and Rear Windows Captioning, in which the captions are projected backward on the rear wall of the theater and then reflected in a panel held by the person who wishes to watch the movie.
The preferred method is open captioning, displaying the text on the screen with the images, “but the theaters are absolutely convinced that the general audience finds open captions distracting, and shuns those viewings,” Waldo wrote.
Still, Butchko isn’t quite ready to give up on the option of open caption movies. He also hopes to pressure AMC into agreeing to an open caption show at least once a week, possibly more.
“I, and many other children and adults with hearing loss, love to watch movies and have been waiting a long time to see captioned movies in Santa Monica,” he told the Disabilities Commission. “Please recommend to the City Council that they use every means available to get captioning in our theaters. It will be good for Santa Monica and the theaters.”