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ADA Goes to the Movies

The Justice Department's civil rights office sues the company that brought stadium seating to movie theaters.

11:00 PM, Jan 23, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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THERE ARE MOVIE SNOBS and then there are movie-theater snobs. The movie-theater snob looks for big screens, high-end sound, legroom, and the newest innovation, stadium seating. If you're a movie-theater snob, chances are you worship at the altar of AMC theaters because they are the gold-standard of the cineplex world. So naturally, the Department of Justice is trying to put them out of business.

AMC (American Multi-Cinema Inc.) opened its doors in 1920 (as Durwood Theaters) and has been the industry leader ever since. In fact, nearly every feature we now take for granted in a movie theater was originally an AMC innovation. They pioneered the multiplex concept, opening America's first twin, four-, and six-screen theaters (in 1963, 1966, and 1969, respectively). They patented the armchair cup-holder in 1981. They were the first chain to make a system-wide commitment to brilliant digital sound when they adopted SDDS in 1994. In 1996, they renovated concessions counters so that customers could butter their own popcorn. And in 1995, AMC brought the concept of stadium seating to America and revolutionized the movie-going experience with the first megaplex.

Today AMC runs 3,558 screens across the United States. Their theaters are always the cleanest, brightest, and most customer-friendly--they were the first chain with a frequent-watcher program to reward patrons. AMC is, and has been for 40 years, the best chain theater exhibitor in the country, and they've done it through a continual process of experimentation and innovation.

But the Clinton Justice Department wasn't impressed. In June of 1998, the Civil Rights Division, under liberal crusader Bill Lann Lee, approached AMC's lawyers with allegations that the stadium seating in certain of the chain's Southern California theaters violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Seven months later, unsatisfied with the company's response, the Justice Department filed suit against AMC in a California district court. That case, eventually inherited--and prosecuted with undiminished vigor--by the Bush Justice Department, was decided last November: Judge Florence-Marie Cooper rendered an across-the-board verdict against AMC in a decision filled with bile (the judge called AMC's defense at turns "intellectually dishonest" and "insulting" and accused them of "deliberate misrepresentation" at multiple junctures). Cooper ordered the company to remedy its ADA violations and pay both compensatory and punitive damages.

American companies get clobbered by the ADA all the time, of course. But the AMC case is particularly instructive--about the character of the Justice Department's permanent legalocracy, and about the special burden that ADA imposes on unusually innovative entrepreneurialism.

FIRST, WE MUST HEARKEN BACK to the dark days of movie-watching when "traditional" theaters were the industry standard. In a traditional theater, the screen was raised up at the front of the auditorium and the floor gradually sloped upward all the way to the back. For the general audience, relatively few seats were ideal. According to a 1994 paper by the National Association of Theater Owners, only the seats in the back third of a theater were optimal; the front two-thirds were noticeably flawed.

Wheelchair seating in the traditional arrangement was also imperfect: Disabled patrons wishing to sit near the middle of the theater had only two choices: the very back row, or a single spot on the aisle, about a third of the way down toward the screen. Bottom line: In traditional theaters, no one--except the few customers lucky and fleet-footed enough to find open, well-placed seats--was truly happy.

Then in 1995, AMC tried a new form of seating utilizing the principles of stadium construction. The screen was lowered, and immediately in front of it was a small "traditional" theater set-up of four or five sloped rows of seats--behind which further rows of seats were placed on risers, in sharply-angled tiers. The effect is remarkable, increasing leg room, better centering the audience's line of sight, shrinking the audience's distance from the screen, and keeping tall people's heads out of short people's way. According to Larry Jacobsen, a former AMC executive, in a stadium theater, there is a design point one-third of the way back from the screen behind which all seats are optimal. In other words, two-thirds of the people in a traditional theater have bad seats and two thirds of the people in stadium theaters have perfect ones.

The first stadium theater, The Grand, a 24-screen megaplex in Dallas, was such a success that stadium seating quickly became the industry standard. Virtually every movie theater built since 1995 has incorporated stadium seating.