AMC Theaters has a very excellent program called Sensory Friendly Films, in which they screen first-run movies in a special setting customized towards autistic persons. They keep the lights up a little bit so the theater isn't so dark and scary, they turn the volume down a bit so the movie isn't so loud and scary, and most importantly they make it clear that the viewers are welcome to make noise, walk around, and just generally be themselves. As the parent of an autistic person, this means I can take my son to a movie and not spend the entire time stressed about him bothering other patrons. There aren't that many first-run films that Ben is interested in, but when there is one then this program is really great.
Which is exactly why I was so frustrated this morning when taking Ben to see the new live action Jungle Book film. The SFF website said very clearly that the showing was at 10am. Not "times may vary" or "check your local listings", just "Saturday: 4/23 at 10am". On the local website for our participating theater, there was no listing specifically called out as being the SFF showing. That, in my experience, is not unusual. I would feel bad for any family who bought tickets to a showing thinking it was a normal screening, and then walked into the noise and chaos without knowing what it was about. My impression was that the SFF showing was specifically NOT listed, for that reason.
So this morning I arrived with Ben at the movie theater at 9:30. I had specifically timed it so that we would get there with enough time to park, purchase tickets, get popcorn and drinks, and then settle into the theater just before showtime. Time management and expectations are very important when planning anything with an autistic person, especially if you are going somewhere unfamiliar.
You can imagine my frustration when we walked up to the box office, and saw a sign saying it would open at 10:30am. Looking at the schedule board, I discovered that the SFF showing was not happening until 11am. Now I had a rapidly-blossoming crisis on my hands. Ben was upset because he wanted to go into the movie theater, but it wasn't open yet. Then he was upset because he wanted to to into the candy shop next door, but it wasn't open yet. From there, he was just upset because he was upset.
I eventually got him calmed down, and we sat and waited on a bench nearby. While sitting on the bench, we saw another family arrive with their autistic daugher. She became frustrated and upset, for all the same reasons. I believe I saw a third family come and go, but I am not 100% positive they were there for the same show. It was just a frustrating morning all around.
At 10am I was able to take him into the candy shop and get him a treat. By then he had calmed down and was waiting patiently while listening to music (the Jungle Book soundtrack, coincidentally.) Finally just before 10:30 we were able to get an assistant manager to come to the window and (politely but firmly) explained our frustration.
She was very nice but not particularly helpful, simply reiterating that at this location they sometimes move the SFF showing to 11am. By that point I had already gone back on the website and looked at the local listing, and as of 10:30am this morning no specific SFF showing was listed on the website. Somewhere between then and now (five hours later), an 11am listing appeared online. That's not much help after the fact.
Eventually the assistant manager went to get the location manger, who was also very kind and understanding. He looked at the website, saw exactly what we were seeing, and he understood exactly why it was particularly difficult for the intended audience. To his credit, he comped our tickets for the 11am show, and he also promised to do what he could to communicate the issue up the corporate chain.
This afternoon I have also had what I hope is a productive twitter conversation wtih @AMCHelps, which is the AMC Guest Services twitter account. I shared website links and screenshots to demonstrate the confusion, and the difficulty it caused. Again to their credit, they have been kind and responsive.
I write all of this not to stir up drama or to just complain. I have already received a sincere apology plus the free tickets to see the show, and that's more than enough in terms of material compensation. What I really want out of this experience (and I do intend to continue to pursue this), is for the Sensory Friendly Films program to do a better job of either enforcing consistency in its showing times, or else to make it very clear what the local showing times are. This is a fantastic program, one that many families all across the country truly appreciate, but when the execution is fumbled as it was this morning it takes what should be a fun treat and turns it into just another landmine situation like all the others we have to navigate on a daily basis. I know that AMC can do better, because AMC has done better.
Probably the next SFF showing I will take Ben to won't be until Finding Dory comes out this summer. I'm looking forward to a much better experience then.