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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.

There was, however, a problem. In some of the smaller stadium-seating theaters, the only wheelchair seats were in the "traditional" sloped area at the front of the theater. By any definition, these wheelchair seats were less good than the new stadium seats.

No one had foreseen the advent of stadium-style construction when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. And while there were guidelines for wheelchair seating in "traditional" theaters, in 1995 none existed for AMC except for some vague references to "lines of sight" in Title III. The Justice Department didn't seem eager to clarify matters. In March of 1997, Justice attorney Joe Russo met with a group of theater owners, including AMC, but refused to give them substantive guidance, saying, of Justice, "So, we're not going to take any long-term lasting positions on what we think is required today." And, "I'm not taking any position at all for the Department today." It wasn't until 1998 that Justice Department officials began working with theater owners, and by then, the problem was all but solved.

Because, you see, AMC's design engineers were diligent on their own. After 1995 they worked to refine the stadium concept and figure out ways to improve wheelchair seating. One way was to have patrons enter in the middle of the "stadium" and have handicapped seating on that level with tiers both ascending and descending from the entry level. By 1997, almost all new theaters being built had vastly improved wheelchair seating. By 2001, when the AMC Hoffman Center opened in Alexandria, Virginia, the handicapped seats were the best in the house--fully centered, half-way back, with no one on either side of them and plenty of room for companions. Because of stadium seating, every moviegoer's experience was enhanced, but no one benefited more than those with disabilities.

NONE OF WHICH seemed to register with Bill Lann Lee. In June of 1998, Lee's office went to AMC with concerns over some of the stadium-seat theaters in Southern California. They alleged that many of these theaters violated Title III of the ADA, which insists that in assembly areas wheelchair patrons must be afforded "lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public."

In particular, Justice was concerned with four theaters: The Promenade 16 (in Woodland Hills), Norwalk 20, Mission Valley 20 (in San Diego), and Fullerton 20. Unable to reach an accommodation, Justice sued AMC in January of 1999. It does not seem to have disturbed Lee--or his Ashcroft-era successors, or Judge Florence-Marie Cooper--that the details of this complaint are ridiculous.

Judge Cooper's ruling against AMC itself makes the ridiculousness clear. She cites one AMC wheelchair patron who complained of "severe neck and eye strain" after watching a particular movie. The movie in question was the 194 minute epic "Titanic," which strained many moviegoers over the age of 15--in that respect, in other words, the complainant's experience was exactly "comparable" to that of the "general public." But in every other respect, admittedly, it was not: the unfortunate lady uses a joystick-controlled wheelchair and must read lips to overcome a severe hearing impairment. How, then, could AMC ever have provided this woman "a movie-going experience comparable to that of other patrons?" Judge Cooper does not say--though she does say that AMC's failure to do so was against the law.

During a brief detour Cooper takes AMC to task on some "subjective" issues. She says that "wheelchair-bound customers experience other conditions that detract from their moviegoing experience. . . . they suffer from a sense of embarrassment and isolation from being relegated to a section of the theater where no one else is sitting. Other customers have described feelings of anger and humiliation, or report a feeling of being watched because everyone else in the audience is behind them." Cooper warns AMC "that an arena owner may not create a 'wheelchair ghetto.'"

But ultimately Cooper's verdict rests heavily on the shoulders of a 19th-century Scottish engineer, John Scott Russell. She concedes that stadium seating was nowhere envisioned by the ADA, but argues that AMC should have intuited the ramifications by studying Russell. Cooper argues that his 1838 work, "Treatise on Sightlines and Seating" is so definitive that AMC should have taken it as if it were the word of God--or at least Bill Lann Lee--and used its conclusions to determine what guidelines were reasonable for wheelchair seating.

Cooper, you see, believes in a living ADA; she says that she "will not interpret [Title III] to be static and inflexible."

But if Russell was so definitive and comprehensive, why wasn't his work enshrined in the ADA back in 1990? And how was AMC supposed to know that Cooper would judge Russell, and not the text of the law, as the ultimate arbiter?

And how come, for that matter, if John Scott Russell's "Treatise" is such an obvious, clarifying guide to the ADA, Judge Cooper herself is unwilling to spell out the details? In a footnote to her opinion, Cooper reveals that during oral argument AMC asked for "as much guidance as possible on this issue." The judge's answer to this plea: "The Court does not today promulgate any hard-and-fast rules."

Crowing about his victory, Ralph F. Boyd Jr.--John Ashcroft's Bill Lann Lee--said, "This court decision ensures that people with disabilities will have a movie-going experience that is comparable to that of other patrons."

But to a large extent, that was already true: Then, as now, if handicapped people were uncomfortable at one of AMC's theaters, they could simply have gone someplace else. There are 28 other movie theaters within 15 miles of the Mission Valley 20; 53 other theaters within 15 miles of the Promenade 16; 58 other theaters within 15 miles of the Fullerton 20; and 72 other theaters within 15-miles of the Norwalk 20. Many other non-handicapped people--who have long legs or an affinity for clean bathrooms--choose the theater that best suits their needs. In these four instances, there's no reason that people in wheelchairs couldn't have done the same.

AMC IS APPEALING Cooper's ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but given the nuttiness of that particular appellate court, the company may very well lose. That would create a conflict in the circuits, since the 5th Circuit has already decided a similar case in favor of the theater owners. If so, USA v. AMC could wind up before the Supreme Court.

The Catch-22 AMC finds itself in is commonplace, but infuriating. They ask for guidance from the government and are given none; they hold to the letter of the law, and are told that they should have divined its spirit.

What makes this case different, though, is that AMC is now being charged with an ADA violation for a design innovation that has actually dramatically improved the disabled patron's moviegoing experience. Stadium seating wasn't perfect at first. But AMC has since perfected it. If you're confined to a wheelchair and you go to a stadium-seat theater built after 1997, your experience will be markedly better than it would have been any time before 1994. Indeed, you'll have the best seats in the house. And for that, you have AMC to thank.

ADA had nothing to do with this advance. But the people who brought us its benefits are being punished for their ingenuity, and ADA has everything to do with that.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.