Training for Non-Technical Cinema Employees

Accommodation, Open Captions

“As a father of four daughters, a deaf man would take one of them to the movies with him – armed with a penlight, pen and paper – and the daughter would sit and write the story for him as the movie played. In 1999, circumstances eventually caused him to make a complaint under the Disability Discrimination Act against his local cinema about the lack of access at the movies. The beneficial results have rippled well into the digital age for deaf and blind people alike.”

Accommodation, Open Captions

The technology of laying words onto film took several decades to evolve into a fairly simple and workable method. The costs of different chemical techniques for open captions, added to the high cost for small runs of film prints, quickly consumed early grants and incentives meant to facilitate their inclusion and distribution. Exhibitors who wanted to show the movie with captions would order a special copy of the movie from specialty companies, then arrange special show times for audiences who wanted to see them. These specialty companies were not associated with any studio, so typically their work was available long after the principle release date of the movie.

Captioning of video for broadcast was more easily accomplished and standardized, then compelled by legislation in the early 90‘s. Finally, with a laser technology that cut into the emulsion of the film, captions returned to first-run movies in 1998 with the release of Titanic, Mask of Zorro and The Jackal.

For many audience members, open captioning is even now the preferred method for seeing a movie. The words are on the same focus plane as the movie, making them easy to read without distracting from the movie. There are problems with open captions: For those who want them, they are never at all cinemas or at all times…and rarely at convenient times. They also require decent reading skills. And, for those who don’t want them (or need them), open captions are a distraction. [In contrast, if the cinema has assisted listening audio working for a movie, the audio tracks can be made available to those who want to listen with earphones, without disturbing audience members who don’t want to listen.]

To give access to the deaf, blind, hard of hearing and partially sighted communities, the exhibition community supported open captions and the installation of assisted listening technology at a limited number of theaters per area, and at a limited number of showings. The advocacy groups in all three major english speaking countries had projects working to make this happen.

In April 2000, NATO – the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) – issued a statement that included the following:

“Deaf or hard of hearing patrons should work WITH the exhibition community by supporting the efforts to make theatres more accessible through the use of open captioning, not AGAINST exhibition by bringing unfounded legal action seeking the wrong solution.”

At the same time in Australia, an official “conciliation process” began, resulting from the experience and complaint of the father from Perth (in the story cited above) under the auspices of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC). It involved the three largest cinema chains, the Motion Picture Distributors Association, consumer reps of the Deafness Forum and Deaf Australia, and the Australian Caption Centre, eventually developing a way to put captions and descriptive narration into the cinemas of Australia from the year 2000 on. 

The evolution began with captioned movies playing 2 week runs in one theater in each of the 8 capital cities, with 2 of the 3 open captioned presentations per week including one Sunday afternoon and one Friday night showing. This grew to 10 when a DTS system became available, then by 10 more when the Department of Ageing funded more systems and introduced audio description into the cinemas.

Over the decade the exhibitors continuously presented plans to expand coverage, and the HREOC would negotiate with, and for, the access community with the benefit of offering the exhibitor(s) an exemption from complaints under the Discrimination Act.

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