Movie Schedule

What’s so hard about making films accessible?

It’s kind of a requirement for me. When we watch TV, subtitles must be on. Watching a movie in the cinema is a bit more complicated.

On Friday, judges from the US Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival walked out of the theatrical screening of “Magazine Dreams” because a closed captioning device provided to one of the judges, Marlee Matlin, was not working. Matlin is deaf. Fellow judges Jeremy O. Harris and Eliza Hittman walked out with Matlin in support. According to Variety, the device was repaired “hours later,” but too late for the judges to see the premiere.

One of the easiest ways to make movies more accessible, both through streaming and a theatrical release, still isn’t profitable enough for studios. And one way to make captions accessible to all, open captions, which Variety said was requested by the Sundance judges, isn’t standard. When it comes to accessibility, it can feel like a gamble every time a disabled person like me leaves home, including simply trying to go to the movies.

The device that didn’t work at Sundance was probably similar to the closed captioning device I ask for every time my family goes to the movies. It’s heavy and unwieldy, a rectangular viewer with metal bezels attached to the end of a long, flexible metal rod. The rod screws or attaches into the cup holder of a theater armrest. Yes, that means I and other people using these devices can’t have their own drink. I frequently bruise my elbow when bumping into the awkward device hanging over the seat, there is no way to get up until the device is removed, and my able-bodied partner has become an expert at helping that tricky thing to set. They are often old and squeaky. One broke in half while we were sitting there.

In theory, Subtitles appear on the device’s display screen when the movie starts, meaning you have to quickly glance back and forth between the big screen in front of you and the small screen next to your lap to follow the action and dialogue. At least captions are target to appear.

Not all cinemas have these devices. Not all movies have them. When I saw “The Last Unicorn” with my son, a hugely influential film from my childhood, I was devastated that the closed captioning machine didn’t work. As someone who is semi-deaf, that reduces the enjoyment and understanding of a film exponentially for me and millions of Americans like me. As filmmaker Alison O’Daniel writes, “I finally understand why I sleep through so many films. I am deaf/deaf/hard of hearing.

We always get weird and nasty looks from fellow moviegoers when we bring the big, top-heavy captioning device into the cinema.

But devices aren’t the only, or perhaps the best, way to grant access. O’Daniel is the writer/director of “The Tuba Thieves,” a feature film also showing at Sundance, with open captioning: a type of closed captioning that appears alongside the film on the big screen. Both the dialogue and the sound descriptions are written in text form that accompanies the images.

As O’Daniel writes, “You can’t turn them off. This makes the film fully accessible as the captions are woven into the fabric of the film’s narrative story.”

TV screens and streaming services see a different type of subtitle: closed captioning, which means you can turn them on or off. In contrast, open subtitles automatically walk with film. They’re always on, and what’s more, they’re an integral part of the film. O’Daniel has a section on their website that clearly explains how to write these captions. It’s an opportunity to be descriptive, another level of creativity in the creative process of filmmaking.

According to Variety, “Several filmmakers have declined requests to provide open captions on screen, citing the cost and time involved in making another print.” Variety, which used an outdated term no longer accepted by most deaf people in its article, also claimed that unnamed sources “say that some buyers have even suggested that including on-screen subtitles would raise the film’s asking price up could somehow affect the market if they try to land distribution.”

But besides adding another creative layer to a movie’s story, open captions are much more reliable than closed captions. Not everyone understands how to turn subtitles on and off via increasingly complicated remote controls, let alone buggy devices in the theater. Open captions also include anyone that doesn’t require a person to reveal anything about their body. It takes time and can be embarrassing to have to declare my disability every time I go to the cinema. We always get weird and nasty looks from other moviegoers when we bring the big, top-heavy captioning machine into the cinema (my son has learned to ignore the looks or return them right away).

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of accessibility is how random everything seems, how dependent it is on chance.

Deaf and hard of hearing people aren’t the only ones who want and benefit from closed captioning. In a survey conducted by Vox this month, 57% of respondents said they felt they “don’t understand what someone is saying” when watching TV or streaming movies and use closed captioning, while just 2% of respondents said they didn’t Use closed captions, claimed to be deaf. Deaf or hard of hearing. Vox attributes the increased need for closed captioning to technological “advancements” in filmmaking, including smaller microphones, digital recording, mixing for surround sound, and more natural (i.e., lots of mumbling) actors’ performances.

Some places have responded to the need for accessibility better than others. Dodger Stadium has closed captioned devices for events – but if you have a phone, there’s also the MLB Ballpark app, which you can download for free and view captions from your phone at this stadium and others. It still doesn’t solve the problem of having to look back and forth between a small and large screen (or stage), which often causes a terrible headache, but at least you can have a drink.

Venues have also responded to the need for other types of accessibility. Many theaters now offer low-sensory performances, including the Alamo Drafthouse, which regularly hosts “sensory-friendly” showings where “the house lights are turned up a little and the sound is turned down a little.” Blind or partially sighted moviegoers at AMC and other theaters can use audio description receivers that feed headphones with a studio-created description track of the film. like that . . . Studios can write a description track but not open subtitles?

Maybe your film isn’t ready for Sundance – or anywhere else – until it’s ready for everyone.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of accessibility is how random everything seems, how dependent it is on chance and the whims of able-bodied people. Does the subtitle device work? Will the employee know how to fix the problem or bother? Will the one night only open captioned screening be cancelled?

Eight films offered at Sundance a open-captioned screening this year; only two they had at each screening (O’Daniel’s film and “Is There Anybody Out There?” by disabled filmmaker Ella Glendining). A new requirement that began in 2022 requires New York City theaters “to provide open-captioning in some of their movie screenings,” according to the mayor’s office of media and entertainment. why some? Which some? Why not all? The mayor’s office itself admits, “Besides moviegoers who are D/deaf and hard of hearing, closed captioning benefits nearly everyone, particularly people watching films in their non-native language and children and adults learning to read.” Everyone in my life, who started watching subtitles because of me, still watches them today, whether I’m on the couch next to them or not. There is need and need.

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We are still a long way from barrier-free films. Most of the advanced screeners of movies and TV shows that are made available to critics don’t even have it completed Subtitles available as an option (ensuring critics are all the same kind of people: mostly able-bodied). And since movies still don’t have universal open captions for their theatrical releases, studios are skipping entire sections of the ticket-buying population. Maybe your film isn’t ready for Sundance – or anywhere else – until it’s ready for everyone.


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