To Make The Whole Audience Happy
What Is Disruptive?
by Steven John Fellman
NATO Washington Counsel
years ago, I spent four wonderful years attending Williams
College in Williamstown, Mass. At that time, Williams was
a mens college. Williams is located in the northwestern
corner of Massachusetts and the winters are long and cold.
Back then, Williamstown was a college town with a total
population, including the 1,500 students, of less than 10,000
people. The entertainment king at Williamstown was a Mr.
Cal King. Mr. King owned the local liquor store and he owned
the one-screen college theatre situated next to the liquor
store. The students at Williams loved horror films, gory
films, war films, westerns and all those other types of
funky pictures that appealed to the young men of America.
No one worried about the noise level of the soundtrack in
Cal Kings theatre. Whatever the film, the entertainment
value on the screen was closely equaled by the entertainment
value of the loud ribald comments from members of the audience.
Cal Kings theatre was crowded almost every night.
The students were raucous, threw popcorn, pasted used chewing
gum to the bottom of their seats and thoroughly enjoyed
the movie. Obviously, the theatre in Williamstown was not
your typical theatre.
the ADA permits you to expel a disabled
person whose conduct is
the ADA also requires that a theatre make a reasonable
accommodation for a
move to the other side of the spectrum and visit a modern
movie theatre located next to a retirement community. The
senior citizens are generally quiet and well-behaved. They
pay their reduced admission fees and look forward to enjoying
a film in a quiet comfortable theatre environment. Although
periodically a hearing-impaired gentleman may ask his spouse
to repeat what some character on the screen just said, generally
there is little talking in the auditorium and certainly
no shouting or yelling. Instead of throwing popcorn, the
patrons spill it on the floor inadvertently.
took several of my college-age Williams classmates and placed
them in the retirement community theatre setting, their
behavior would be disruptive. The senior patrons would complain,
and the theatre management would tell the students to be
quiet or else leave.
examples demonstrate the need for exhibitors to have a policy
on how to deal with disruptive patrons.
does theatre management recognize that conduct that may
be appropriate in a college theatre setting may not be appropriate
in a retirement community theatre setting? How does theatre
management recognize that audience reactions that may be
appropriate during an action film may not be appropriate
during a love story? Although in the abstract, this may
appear to be a difficult question, in reality, experienced
theatre management should know what is disruptive and what
is acceptable in terms of audience conduct. Your managers
will give the students in a college theatre environment
more leeway than they would give the same students who are
visiting their grandparents at the retirement community
theatre. Experience and discretion will dictate how theatre
management will deal with these types of situations.
same type of experience and discretion must be used in dealing
with certain traits of persons with disabilities. Certain
persons with disabilities have physical conditions that
cause them to make noises. Persons with Tourrette Syndrome
may have loud vocal responses including cursing, barking
like a dog, or mumbling incoherently. Persons with Down
Syndrome may have a tendency to speak in loud voices when
attending a motion picture or move around while the picture
is showing. Other persons with disabilities may make uncontrollable
sounds like snorting, coughing or breathing with great gasps
you must train your staff to deal with disabled patrons.
The law is clear that a disabled patron does not have the
right to disrupt a theatrical performance or a movie. Extreme
disruptive conduct is a valid reason for asking any person,
disabled or able-bodied, to leave the motion picture theatre.
The manager can feel confident that he or she is acting
properly in requesting that an overtly disruptive patron
leaves the theatre.
there are many cases where the disruptive behavior
is borderline. Let us assume that a person has a breathing
problem and his or her intake and exhaling is very noticeable.
When does noticeable become disruptive? What
is noticeable during a quiet love story may not be noticeable
during a horror film or a loud action film.
the ADA permits you to expel a disabled person whose conduct
is disruptive, the ADA also requires that a theatre make
a reasonable accommodation for a persons disability.
and discretion are key factors in evaluating a situation
where a person with a disability is making noise in a theatre
environment. Generally this type of situation comes to managements
attention when a patron complains. When the manager receives
a complaint of disruptive practice and the person causing
the problem is a person with a disability, management should
attempt to resolve the issue on a reasonable basis. First
determine if the conduct is in fact disruptive. Assuming
that the conduct is disruptive, ask the person with the
disability if that person can control the conduct. Explain
that the person may inadvertently be disrupting the surrounding
audiences enjoyment of the motion picture. Ask the
person to curtail the offending behavior. If the person
is able to stop making noise, the issue is resolved and
hopefully everybody is happy.
in many cases, the person cannot change his or her behavior.
In such cases, theatre management must make an immediate
decision. If the behavior is truly disruptive, the exhibitor
has the right to ask the disabled person to leave the theatre.
We would suggest that the person be given a full refund
and be invited to return at such time when the person is
in better control of his or her physical condition. Explain
that you would like to have the person with a disability
as a regular patron at your theatre and you would like to
know what accommodation would be possible to enable the
person with the disability to enjoy the film without disrupting
other patrons. If the person can recommend a reasonable
accommodation, the theatre manager should agree to it. One
example of a reasonable accommodation would be to move to
an area of the auditorium where no one else is sitting so
the noise will not disrupt other patrons. If no accommodation
is possible, the person will have to leave.
the person with the disability leaves the theatre, the manager
should write a report documenting everything that has occurred.
The report should include managements attempt to get
the behavior problem corrected on a voluntary basis; the
fact that the person with a disability was unable to control
the behavior; the fact that the manager asked the person
with the disability if there was any accommodation that
the theatre could make that would enable the disabled person
to enjoy the movie without disrupting other patrons; the
fact that no such accommodation was suggested or that managements
proposal to change seats was rejected; and the ultimate
outcome. The report should be sent to the home office.
this solve all your problems? Obviously not. But this is
the best way we know of to handle this type of patron.
And by the way, would I still enjoy watching a movie in
the environment that made me happy at the Williamstown Theatre?
I have to say, No. I would find the students
behavior disruptive. But I sure enjoyed it while I was a