While the international exhibition industry has always aspired to keep ahead of government regulations, especially those regarding access and facilities for the disabled, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 has given rise to a new and challenging set of issues that could prove costly to resolve.
In what many will hope does not set a precedent, an Australian multiplex cinema is about to be re-launched, despite the fact that it is less than five years old. The refurbishment was undertaken in order to provide increased facilities for disabled people and was prompted by a successful legal challenge.
A wheelchair-bound teenager complained to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission about the six-screen Reading Boadwalk Cinema at Mandurah, when it was still brand new. Her complaint was not that there were no facilities for physically handicapped people like herself, but that she had to sit too close to the screen or be carried to a seat. When that action failed she took legal action and an out-of-court settlement was reached.
The Mandurah City Council, which owns and leases the building to Reading Cinemas, subsequently added suitable seating at the back of the cinema as well as two lifts, at considerable cost. The cost to Reading was fewer seats. But the lesson that has emerged is that no amount of design effort will ever provide complete indemnity.
"We have since doubled our (design) effort in every cinema but it is not possible to be confident that someone won't successfully argue a different case in the future," said Reading chief executive Neil Pentecost. "This dispute was over where people want to sit. Just as you and I might not be able to agree where to sit in a cinema, getting consensus from every disabled community is extremely difficult. You have to consult as widely as you can but it is almost impossible to meet everyone's needs."
The Mandurah cinema is an hour south of Perth on Australia's west coast. It was the second Australian cinema opened by Reading, which now has over 90 screens and is the country's fourth biggest exhibitor. Ironically, Reading regularly uses architect Sandy Blythe, who has long experience designing cinemas and is a para-olympian himself.
But it is not just in the area of special needs that the cinema industry is having to exercise vigilance. The successful case of a teacher who hurt her back after not realising that the seats in a Hoyts Cinema were retractable is a second recent Australian example of the care needed when designing public cinemas. The negligence case, which hinged on the lack of warning signs, was won on appeal in February but a further trial to determine damages has yet to be held.