Fourteen Questions for Russ Boltz, Champion of DVD Captioning

Fourteen Questions for Russ Boltz, Champion of DVD Captioning

By Cheryl Heppner

Editor: Remember the recent court ruling concerning DVD captioning? The guy who brought the suit was Russ Boltz from Laguna Beach, CA. Here’s Cheryl Heppner with an interview of Russ!

You are welcome to share this information, but please be sure to credit NVRC. See the credit information at the end of this article.

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A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about Russ E. Boltz as an example of one individual who can make a big difference. Boltz is a lawyer with an office in Laguna Beach, CA who has a hearing loss. He was the “named plaintiff” for a class action lawsuit against Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal Studios, MGM, Sony Pictures, Tri-Star Pictures, and subsidiary companies that are involved in making and distributing DVDs. Other companies also produce DVDs, but the ones in this lawsuit had packaging that misled consumers who bought or rented the DVD to think it was completely closed captioned.

The final hearing on the proposed settlement was held on August 28, 2006. Judge Anthony Mohr approved the settlement. NVRC had previously written a declaration in support of the settlement, and the attorney for Boltz and consumers in the class action, Harry Shulman of the Mills Law Firm in San Rafael, CA, said that Judge Mohr went out of his way to comment about each of the declarations.

If there are no appeals, in 70 days Hearing Loss Association of America will get $105,000 and National Association of the Deaf and Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing will get $85,000 apiece as part of the settlement. The funds are to be used to promote captioning of the video arts.

I was thrilled that Boltz, “Rusty” to his friends, consented to an interview. In our email exchanges, he was warm and enthusiastic. I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did.

1. What are the key points in the settlement?

Most significant is that the biggest motion picture studios have agreed to caption the “bonus items” on virtually all DVDs over the next five years. We think that this will continue even after that, since “organizational inertia” will be coupled with the fact that captioning helps sell product at a pretty low cost. We hope that this means that DVDs (and future media that replace DVDs) will be almost entirely captioned. And while not every studio is covered by this settlement, other, smaller studios are likely to “follow their lead” for competitive reasons.

2. Walk us through how it all started. Were you a big movie fan? Did you watch lots of DVDs? Do you collect or rent your DVDs?

Well, just like Rosa Parks said about that bus in Birmingham, “I was tired and I just wanted to sit down.” While I’m not in her league – not even close! – and there was more to her story than sore feet, it was similar for me: I just want to know what they’re saying in those cool “bonus items.” I love movies, and always have, but with worsening hearing over the years, I’d increasingly wait for a flick to be issued on VCR tape, so that I would be able to fully “get” the dialogue. When DVDs came out, I stayed with my VCR until about 2001, when I had to spend a few months away from family (and my VCR) and I got a cheap portable DVD player. When I rented films, I’d look (as I always did) on the back to see if they were captioned, and all of them listed bunches of fun “bonus items”. When I would try to watch them, while the film might be captioned, the bonuses usually weren’t (except – God bless them! – Dreamworks!). I returned a bunch to Blockbuster, saying, “The box is wrong; it’s not all captioned.” I got some refunds, but decided this was something that was wrong. Rosa was a great inspiration: If it’s wrong, you do something about it.

3. When did you first notice the absence of captioning on the DVDs?

When I played them. That’s why they call it “false advertising” – you don’t find out the promise is untrue until you have already started to use the product.

4. How did you find out that this was a widespread problem involving several studios?

Well, they all made DVDs – except Dreamworks – that didn’t have full captioning.

5. What made you decide to pursue a legal remedy?

As a lawyer, I knew that a snarky bunch of letters would get nowhere, which proved true when my lawyers wrote the studios, each of which responded with, essentially, “Go away.”

6. You are a lawyer yourself. Why did you decide to put the lawsuit in the hands of another lawyer?

There is a saying about the imprudence of self-representation: “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” Class action work is specialized and very time intensive — my lawyers spent literally thousands of hours on this case — and requires the ability to make independent recommendations to a client. I knew I’d do better with a strong case and my knowledge if I had good lawyers who knew how to bring home a good result in a case like this.

7. Tell us more about your quest to find a lawyer who would take the lawsuit.

I did what any smart client should do: I asked people for recommendations, I asked judges who they knew that had been successful, I looked for similar kinds of cases, and I contacted lawyers to ask their opinion. It took me about a solid year to find someone who I felt confident in. Getting a lawyer is like getting married, only with few of the advantages and a lot of the risks: You need someone who you trust implicitly, who has every skill you need, and who will listen to you and accept what you’re saying when you make sense and tell you you’re full of rotten bananas when you don’t. I was very lucky: I found Harry Shulman, who is both incredibly empathetic and extremely skilled in the law, and who is one of the finest lawyers I’ve ever known or worked with. It was, in the legal (and very platonic) sense, “love at first sight.” For me, at least.

8. What challenges did you face in bringing the lawsuit forward?

The biggest was convincing Harry Shulman and Robert Mills that there was a viable case here. That’s the first test: If you can’t convince your lawyer you have a good case, she or he won’t take it…unless you pay by the hour. If they don’t believe in your case, it’s almost impossible to get them to make a judge or jury do so. So being prepared, having the information they needed to make a good legal judgment, all of that made it possible.

9. Were there any surprises during the process?

Yes, the biggest possible: We knew that there was no law requiring captioning of DVDs or bonus materials, and thought we would have to just go for damages. To get the studios to agree to do full captioning was one of our goals, but I was incredibly pleased when we found that the studios would do so. They deserve some real credit for that, too.

10. Were there things you wanted but had to sacrifice in order to reach the settlement?

Yes, damages, but those would have been so small per person as to be far outweighed by the benefits to everyone of full captioning.

11. How much of your time was involved in the lawsuit from start to finish?

Well, I estimate that from the time I first started thinking about a lawsuit to the time of settlement approval I have spent somewhere between 600 and 1000 hours of time, plus that of my wife, Sharon, who provided a lot of thought and active help.

12. Tell us about the drama at the settlement hearing.

There was not much drama; it was largely anticlimactic. The attorneys for both sides appeared, as did I. The judge came in, listened to two people who objected, disagreed with them, and agreed it was a good settlement. The biggest drama of the day for me was negotiating the LA freeways to get home.

13. Do you have any new “crusades” on your list now that this one is behind you?

Well, “crusades” is a term that’s not in great favor these days, but I sure as dirt would like to see “Rear Window” captioning in more theaters. As in any theaters out here. And I’d like to convince my fellow “California-and-Michigan-joint-resident” Jeff Daniels, of the Purple Rose Theater in Chelsea, Michigan, to caption that incredibly hilarious flick, “Escanaba In Da Moonlight.”

14. What advice would you give others as a result of your experience?

Well, maybe three things: First, “discrimination” isn’t just about the big things, such as where you can work, or who you can marry, or how you are allowed to deal with handicaps; it’s about the small things in life, as well. There’s no reason to accept the little indignities any more than the large ones. Second, I’d remind people that most of our rights end up being protected, sooner or later, by lawyers and courts, and sometimes in cases brought by people that are powerless or ignored, except by some lonely lawyer. I’m glad there are lawyers who can protect rights, and that sometimes I’m one of them. And lastly, I’d suggest that people lean back, pop a brewski, and watch the captions in “Making of the Great Lebowski Special Edition” if one ever comes out.

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(c)2006 by Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC), 3951 Pender Drive, Suite 130, Fairfax, VA 22030; www.nvrc.org Items in this newsletter are provided for information purposes only; NVRC does not endorse products or services. You do not need permission to share this information, but please be sure to credit NVRC