Joe Clark: Media access

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Cinema → The first launch

Updated 2001.11.18

The first launch

On 2001.11.14 (Wednesday), Famous Players, Canada’s largest cinema chain (owned by Viacom), hosted a media launch for its installation of five MoPix systems – i.e., five sets of Rear Window captioning and DVS Theatrical audio-description systems.

I had pitched Famous Players to write a manual explaining all the issues involved in an accessible cinema rollout, which I could then later manage as a separate project. Word came down that the company’s goal was a “zero-cost” launch.

The briefing took place at the SilverCity Yonge & Eglinton cinema in midtown Toronto, chosen in preference to the much-higher-profile Paramount at Richmond and John Sts. on my suggestion – SilverCity sits right on top of a subway station, making it easier to get to if you’re blind.

I arrived and promptly discovered I had committed the 21st-century equivalent of shooting pictures without film: Yes, I had in fact left the flash memory card for my borrowed digital camera at home. D’oh! So no pictures today. I plunked my bag at a table in the “commissary” and a fellow over yonder immediately pegged me and asks “Are you deaf?”

I somehow immediately mustered the signs (but not the right facial expressions) for “No, hearing.” “Ah,” he nodded, and I wondered where the hell the interpreter was. (Sitting right next to him, as it turned out. That’s the second D’oh! of the day.) Blind and low-vision people and quite a few hard-of-hearing people were present in the total attendance of under 20, plus the usual nondisabled people who work in the accessibility field, like me.


We later proceeded to the “equipped” Cinema 8, picking up Rear Window reflectors and DVS headsets along the way. The reflectors are big, heavy things that, contrary to what I had been told lo those many years ago, are not “dirt cheap.” I feel like the Grim Reaper whenever I walk around with one of these contraptions; they look exactly like a scythe you picked out in the Sharper Image catalogue to match your PalmPilot.

Also, contrary to the illustrations on the MoPix Web site (example), the DVS headsets are big solid plastic things, fully self-contained, and not a pair of headphones connected to a separate receiver by cable. Left and right sides are marked by a tiny moulded L and R, respectively, but mostly you have to remember that the left side has the battery compartment and the right side the volume control.

The most notable feature: When you turn it on, an extremely conspicuous red LED lights up at the very top of the headset, illuminating the top of your head, and its every movement, for sighted people behind you. What you cannot do, then, is bring your own headphones and plug them into a separate receiver. This has got to change.

Also, you need a line-of-sight to the transceiver. The headset might not work at all if you do the hiphop-DJ thing and twist the connecting strap so it rests against your neck. The headsets are heavy and produce a discernible hiss when you turn the descriptions up loud enough to actually hear them in an “immersive” movie theatre. This too has got to change.

The first clip

Eventually we were welcomed by Famous Players staff; reps from the CNIB and the Canadian Hearing Society delivered the expected encomia; and a young blind boy, obviously a bit nervous, gave a nice little presentation about being all excited to be able to attend and understand Harry Potter, Famous Players’ first accessible feature film.

But Harry Potter had not yet “opened,” as they say in the industry. We had to watch something. And then the fun began as everyone suited up to enjoy a clip of Monsters, Inc., an impossibly delightful little film I now do not want to go see because I cannot do so with captioning and description. I’ve been spoiled.

Yes, many years after I wrote a raft of articles on the MoPix system, this was the very first time I had ever enjoyed a MoPixed movie. None of my trips to the U.S. in the intervening years had given me the chance to visit one of the quite limited number of accessible cinemas. I’ve also seen exactly one open-captioned film in a cinema. Such are the hazards of living in Canada, where captioning is prevalent on television, audio description is essentially unknown, and neither can really be found at the movies.

Opponents of audio description always like to say certain genres are unnecessary to describe, usually sports, news, and music videos. In truth, undescribed news, sports, and music videos, like undescribed everything, lead to confusion and are inaccessible. But if you’re blind, you do not want to attempt to watch Monsters, Inc. without descriptions, because the entire movie is built on sight gags. Descriptions are as fast as the action; as with captioned music videos, you simply have to keep up.

Rear Window captioning, relying as it does on a rather crude if expensive LED display, has a font even uglier and more outdated than what we put up with in Line 21 closed captioning, but it is workable. Manhandling the reflector into position requires trial and error, and one must overcome Canadian reserve. If the reflector sits on a “gooseneck” stalk, you pretty much have to wring the goose’s neck. You’ve got to twist the thing in three dimensions, and pretty much give up hope of keeping the edge of the reflector level. (It doesn’t have to be.)

We watched 20 minutes of the movie and by gar I didn’t want it to stop, but we had Q&A to do. The questions were not unexpected, including a few that would be covered by a good rollout plan, like: What happens if more than one MoPixed film is available at any one time but a single screen per theatre is accessible? If you trade in I.D. for a reflector and/or headset, what happens when kids attend a G-rated film all by themselves? They don’t have I.D. necessarily.

Press corps

Before everything got started, I noted that only three news cameras were in attendance. I tried to chat the reporters up. Audra Brown of CITY-TV wore the frown of dumb-beautiful-girls-stuck-doing-something-they-don’t-give-a-damn-about everywhere, while the CTV and Global cameramen (sic) were grizzled Teamster types who’ve seen it all.

Afterwards, during media-mingling moment, I hit up every journo I could find and gave good quote. Apparently Teddy Katz aired me on CBC Radio, but I never heard it, and none of the print and online coverage mentioned me. Various of these links will eventually expire:

Advocacy groups also covered the event:

TV coverage wasn’t all that interesting. Audra Brown just could not wrap her blondness around the topic, because for the Beautiful People reading a movie or listening to a yammering narrator just is not cool. While I gave good quote to the Global reporter, a crusty middle-aged guy I liked and got along with, I managed to miss it. D’oh! Mark III.

Not a bad launch, really.

The question becomes: Will future launches be even better? They can be.