ALDA/Cinemark Reflections: Video Description Another Access Problem

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2010  02:59 AM


While I’m not a fan of litigious solutions to problems that typically could be resolved by common sense and human decency, my hat’s off to a group of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in Alameda County, Calif., who are suing the Cinemark theater chain there. They just want to be able to go to the movies with their friends and families, the plaintiffs maintain, and Cinemark, the third-largest theater chain in the country, has resisted installing the necessary equipment to display the closed captions developed for a variety of first-run movies.

The Motion Picture Access Project (MoPix) has been around for nearly 20 years and, while the concept is straightforward and the technology solid, theaters can’t seem to make it run as smoothly as logic would dictate.

I’ve had more than my share of frustration with movies that are intended to be accessible, too. For me and others with visual impairments, accessibility lies not in captioning, but in video description. I have shown up at theaters where the headsets had no batteries, where staff couldn’t find the headsets and where the technician simply forgot to turn on the disc containing the additional sound track. In each of these instances, in cities from Los Angeles to Washington to Cincinnati and Columbus, I was granted a range of apologies and sometimes free tickets. But after a certain number of repetitions, inertia sets in.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

In 1993, WGBH, the largest PBS station in the country, launched its National Center for Accessible Media, which in turn created MoPix to provide description for visually impaired and captioning for hearing-impaired moviegoers. As the entity that had launched captioning for television in 1972, and Descriptive Video Service nearly 20 years later, it was no surprise that the effort to make movies accessible to all audiences would come from WGBH.

If you have difficulty hearing the dialogue, you pick up a device that looks like a piece of Plexiglas on a short pole, sit anywhere in the theater, and see the captions for all dialogue spoken displayed on your personal viewer (called Rear Window Captioning.) If you have difficulty seeing the visual details on the screen, you pick up a headset, sit anywhere in the theater and hear verbal descriptions (neatly spaced between lines of dialogue) of gestures, scenery and other relevant details in your personal headset.

Theaters must install the necessary equipment to display the captions or play the additional audio track. The additional discs are sent to the theater. The cost of installation is about $12,000 per theater ($4,500 less if films are displayed digitally).

Motion picture companies are paying to have the descriptive video and closed-captioning developed for loads of movies. Right now, on the MoPix site, about 25 current films are listed as having Descriptive Video Service and Rear Window Captioning added, including Love and Other DrugsSecretariatHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, and many more. The site also lists dozen of upcoming films for which they will be added throughout the next year.

Some 500 theaters across the country have had the necessary equipment installed to play the captioning and description for these movies, but often, moviegoers who need the extra features are going away disappointed.

Seeing the latest Harry Potter film might not be as essential to quality of life as, say, getting a job or a college degree, but movies are an integral part of our popular culture. Whether you have a disability or not, a little bit of entertainment and escapism is a necessary piece of the equality package.

The folks in Alameda are trying to force a particular theater to install captioning equipment. I hope they win – and when the equipment is installed, I hope the theater learns how to use it.

There are two MoPix-equipped theaters in Columbus: AMC Easton 30, 275 Easton Town Center, and AMC Lennox Town Center 24, 777 Kinnear Rd.

Deborah Kendrick is a Cincinnati writer and advocate for people with disabilities.

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