Accessible cinema rollouts
SUMMARY – If you own a cinema or a chain and are considering adding captioning and audio description, there are a host of issues – some small, some large – that You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know. This document aims to educate you so you can improve your knowledge and avoid mistakes that would not be apparent to those new to accessibility.
Movie accessibility for deaf/hard-of-hearing and blind/visually-impaired people is a hot topic in the exhibition industry now. Why?
The problem? The exhibition industry does not know a lot about captioning and description and does not have much experience dealing with the main communities involved – deaf/hard-of-hearing and blind/visually-impaired people.
It’s true that accessibility has been an ongoing issue for exhibitors for years. But that has taken the form of architectural or wheelchair accessibility and, to a limited extend, amplification systems for hard-of-hearing people. The addition of words to cinematic artworks – visible words in captioning, audible words in description – adds whole new areas of complication.
It also adds whole new ways to make mistakes. I wrote this document in the hopes of giving the most general advice on the issues you have to consider.
Even though captioning and audio description will provide access to big-name feature films, in fact you are dealing with a grassroots project, not a blockbuster one. You need good word-of-mouth well in place before an official launch. You need buzz before coverage.
Further, your accessibility project attempts to serve mutually-exclusive audiences (blind people can’t read captions and deaf people can’t hear descriptions) with a range of subtly differentiated identities. You need to get community members onside before doing a conventional media launch, though, as you’ll see, you will also embrace disability-specific media at this stage.
Among other benefits, the community representatives you meet can become part of the media launch, demonstrating the credibility of the project. Tasks in a community rollout include:
- Face-to-face meetings
- Start with leaders of clubs and service agencies first (to generate buzz within the club or agency), then set up general meetings with the full membership of the clubs and agencies later on. Typically, this will involve deaf and hard-of-hearing people since clubs and service agencies take such a big role in those communities.
- Blind and visually-impaired people are less cohesively organized and harder to reach. The paradoxical solution? Reach out to the blind media (which does actually exist) to get the word out.
- Woo the community well before installation. Start right after you make the decision to provide accessibility. Word-of-mouth takes time to build, and some outreach must be carried out by slow methods like postal mail.
- Community outreach will not be secret; anyone may attend, and some mainstream journalists may pick up on our activities.
- Manage journalists’ expectations by explaining your conscientious efforts to inform the community before informing the mainstream media.
- And actually, a small gossip-column item along the lines of “Which movie chain is taking meetings with deaf groups about captioning in its theatres?” can only help. (This is still showbiz, after all.)
- Begin negotiations for endorsement or commendation from relevant groups and agencies in advance of media rollout.
- Develop schedules for ongoing consultation. It may be wise to set up an advisory board that meets regularly but not very often (every two months, say). Community members must be the majority on any such advisory board, while at least one of your own reps must be senior enough to make decisions and get things done.
When covering the exhibition industry in general, the press has rightly focused on the declining fortunes of the business. That’s fair; it was news. But now you’ve got new news. You can offer journalists news about the exhibition industry that accentuates the positive for a change.
- The cinema access project is more than the simple addition of visible and audible words to feature films. It involves:
- Competitive advantages (“We’re doing it and our competitors aren’t”).
- Unabashed human interest
- Mixed disabled and nondisabled families – as are the norm – can now go to the movies together.
- Parents with a hearing or visual impairment can prescreen a film to ensure it is suitable for their kids.
- Corporate responsibility (“We have such a strong commitment to accessibility we’ll spend money on it in a downturn”).
- With their cooperation, community members can act as spokespeople, imparting the message that accessibility isn’t a good thing merely because cinema is investing in it; consumers themselves support it enthusiastically.
- Plan for and prepare responses to tough questions journalists might pose, which will come in handy in discussing how the current project relates to wheelchair access (including any legal cases or human-rights complaints on that topic).
- Educate the film critics
- Critics will be very experienced at watching subtitled and dubbed films but will have essentially no knowledge whatsoever about captioning and audio description.
- Despite being cinephiles, even film critics may share the Conventional Wisdom about captioning (that it's unnecessary and “distracting”) and may well be turned off by the idea of captioned movies. Audio description will be quite new to them and may elicit a frown or two.
- The way to solve this problem for critics is the same way to solve the problem for any nondisabled person: Exposure. It takes many hours of watching captioned and described films before the act of so doing becomes natural, and after that point you develop an eye and ear for the medium and quickly learn to differentiate good captioning from bad, and likewise with description.
Accessibility means more than wheelchairs, however much the famous wheelchair symbol for accessibility might imply a bias in that direction. You’re doing all the right things to expand accessibility into a much bigger tent than before, but, as it turns out, accessibility is an even bigger tent than that.
The right way to embrace accessibility is all the way. Don’t be half-pregnant with accessibility. Instead, access must pervade the organization. The goal here is to raise the consciousness within your company, elevating accessibility from something that staff are required to spend time on to something that staff gets or even loves – something cool. And yes, it can be done.
Needs assessment includes:
- TTY telephone accessibility (at head office, at theatres, for access information).
- Accessibility information lines (voice and TTY), covering all issues, not just captioning and audio description.
- Awareness training for front-line and head-office staff.
- Provision of documents in alternate media.
- Web accessibility.
- Incorporating accessibility into daily communications (including movie listings) and planning for facilities and expansion.
- Formation of an industry-wide accessibility working group.
- Surveying relevant worldwide activities and legislation. Similarly, develop liaison with film festivals, overseas exhibitors, and other interested parties; you can become a source of expertise on cinema accessibility.
- Role of subtitling and open captioning (and, to a lesser extent, dubbing) in accessibility provision.
- In Canada, draft a French-language implementation strategy (which could be big enough for a free-standing project).
- Public education: Posters and signage, PSAs, training videos, and sponsorships, among others. Education materials must themselves be accessible, with certain exceptions.
- Launch management, with provisions for the different needs of community members, industry, and media. (Multiple launches may be required.)
- Marketing tie-ins with films accessible at launch and all subsequent accessible films.
- Policy and procedures for group sales and visits.
- Advertising campaigns in community media.
- Online development, including sections on your Web site and regular mailing-list distributions. Online chat sessions at launch.
- Ongoing integration of accessibility into the lives of cinema staff. Even nondisabled staff should come to accept accessibility as a right and a valid part of their own individual lives. Among other things, staff should regularly go to the movies, watch captions, and listen to descriptions.
I’ve provided this compilation as merely a listing of the issues you must take care of to ensure a successful launch. That says nothing of your staff’s ability to actually carry out the relevant tasks. For that, you can hire experts, like me.