Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

The day the movies died

I’m sure that even my friends, let alone my detractors, are going to find this a bit dramatic, but believe me when I tell you that I haven’t had much of an interest in going to the movies since my two-year stint watching every piece-of-shit Hollywood “product” with MoPix. In fact, I think I’ve seen a mere four movies since calling off the experiment – Big Fish (for some reason), Punch-Drunk Love, Code 46, and Primer. Nor am I totally wild about watching films on DVD, despite owning dozens of them.

What went wrong?

  1. Getting no support whatsoever from deaf or blind people. It’s likely they never found out that we – that is, whoever shows up and I – actually were heading out to see each and every MoPixed film. If true, that indicates a severe inability to Google, and also an unwillingness to read giant Toronto Star articles about me and my work. But I suppose that makes sense: The Toronto Star Web site is difficult to navigate in a screen reader and big-D Deaf people are ever so proud of their unwillingness to read.

    Still, those who knew what I was doing ignored me almost completely. Mr. X and Mr. Y were almost always my only companions for Movie Nights. We had a couple of group outings and I took a few visitors to the movies. The group outings were rather taxing for the uninitiated guests, and I don’t think they went over well. The out-of-town visitors had a good time.

    I felt I had no support for what I was doing. There already aren’t a whole lot of us working in accessibility, and doing this all alone – or, more accurately, with the same two companions at best – night after night made me feel eccentric and isolated.

    (I had to wonder why nobody else was publishing their MoPix experiences online. My conclusion is that deaf and blind people will put up with anything you give them.)

    I met a few blind people at screenings. I found it very odd indeed that they had no interest at all in talking even about a simple subject like the act of attending the very picture they were in line to watch. They couldn’t see me, but they treated me like unexploded dynamite. Perhaps that says something about me. Or perhaps they’re just supicious. (I talked to a deaf or hard-of-hearing person only once, which was uncomfortable; I did wave to another deaf person on one occasion.)

  2. Schlepping. Did I ever get tired of heading downtown, uptown, or across town just to see a movie.

  3. Piece-of-shit movies. Mostly they were. Of the 67 I saw, I enjoyed about a third. At about 2½ hours per picture including previews and suchlike, I spent five solid days of my life in those goddamned theatres.

  4. Quality never improved. My esteemed colleagues at the WGBH Educational Foundation never improved their captioning and audio description. The rate of error was nearly unchanged throughout my moviegoing years.

  5. Getting ignored by WGBH. I’ve been a supporter of WGBH’s captioning for 25 years (with provisos) and its audio description since the 1990s. I have known people at WGBH since before the longest-serving captioner began work there. I was the one who persuaded Alliance Atlantis to pay for MoPixing of Austin Powers. I handed them a new client!

    I’m one of their friends, but they consistenly pretended that I wasn’t watching their movies and error-checking their work. (It’s actually much worse than that. Separately, Larry Goldberg of WGBH interfered with my business and caused such harm to my dealings with WGBH that it can only be resolved when he leaves the Foundation or dies.)

  6. The hardware never improved. From the very first screening, caption reflectors were scratched to shit, and that never got better. Headsets are too heavy and clunky and they absolutely are not soundproof; it is quite possible to disturb the person next to you just by listening to audio descriptions (or amplified main volume).

    Famous Players never put a stop to the rampant hardware breakdowns, particularly at Silver City Yonge & Eglinton, which continued for so long that they became embarrassing to the highly competent projectionist. I don’t think anybody should have to stand for scratched reflectors that were scarcely ever cleaned by underworked staff; dead pixels in a display; or the complete absence of descriptions because some contractor aimed the infrared emitter at the far wall rather than the auditorium.

But those are minor in the grand scheme of things.

Famous Players was the problem

The real problem was dealing with Famous Players staff. I don’t know what their issue is. Are managers, particularly at head office, so genteel and corporate that they can’t handle somebody who reports everything that goes wrong? who sticks up for himself and his privacy rights? Was the attitude one of “We’re the only ones who installed this equipment – something you seem ungrateful for – and how well it works is beside the point”? At times, that certainly seemed to be the attitude.

Why did a vice-president and a manager at Famous Players so very often treat me like a problem rather than an asset? I charge four digits a day for my accessibility consulting. (They should know that. I pitched Famous Players for work three different times.) I gave them the equivalent of 20 days’ worth of consulting for free. Deaf and blind patrons were not calling them up, or even talking to frontline staff, when things went wrong. (In part that’s because deaf people cannot communicate easily with staff. Further, four years into the process, Famous Players’ claimed TTY number [416 934-7917] still leads immediately to voicemail.) In all practical ways, the only way for Famous Players to find out something was wrong was from me.

Let’s look at the worst-case scenario. If a person with a disability attends a movie screening with the expectation that accessibility will be provided yet it is not provided, that person could file a human-rights complaint that would cost Famous tens of thousands in internal legal fees to defend against. (And they’d probably lose.) Since I showed up a few days after opening night in most cases, I gave the theatre chain ample early notice of hardware failures and other problems, allowing Famous to fix them, serve their disabled clientele, and avoid getting hauled in front of the human-rights commission yet again.

And I brought the company publicity. The full-page article by Sid Adilman in the Saturday Star in 2002 was valuable.

But the normal course of events involved phone calls from the vice-president or manager trying to make the claim that I was rude or sarcastic with their frontline staff. Sarcastic? Sometimes, yes, in the face of rampant incompetence, as in the case of reporting the same technical failure at three out of four screenings at Silver City. Rude? Not even once. And you can take that to the bank. Remember, I was ruthlessly honest in my movie reviews; everything that went right or wrong I faithfully and accurately reported, no matter who did it. When I screwed up, I said so. It’s just that I didn’t screw up very often.

The vice-president and manager were much more interested in spending billable time calling me up to criticize my tone of voice than in solving the actual problems, which never went away.

And the apotheosis was of course the privacy issue. Famous Players simply flubbed it from start to finish in creating and applying their requirements for signing out caption reflectors and description headsets. I got so tired of having something different happen each time. (And in most cases, what happened was a PIPEDA violation, as the company and the Privacy Commissioner later admitted.) I got tired of having to deal with untrained staff, whether adult-aged managers or teenage “playaz.” (Intersting fact: The vice-president and manager were so uncool as to deem that widely-used slang term insulting. Not to a playa it isn’t!)

I began to dread the whole process.

And it too never, ever got better.

So I filed a complaint, and I won – on all but a single count.

Yet is it is a Pyrrhic victory:

The ironic part is that the whole field has gotten quite a bit more interesting in the last year.

  1. Cineplex plans to buy Famous Players.
  2. Some deaf people, including one who was [redacted] with me, filed a complaint against Famous Players and others alleging discrimination, and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario read in several other respondents. (I volunteered to be an expert witness. I would have been available to the complainants, but I made explicit suggestions to Famous Players and to the Tribunal.) The deaf complainants are gonna win and the cinema chains are gonna be stuck with a seriously expensive remedy that they will probably screw up.
    • Update, 2005.08.05: One of the complainants E-mailed me to ask me if I knew of “any experts from Ontario who can... testify on captioning movie technology developments.” My response was: “I already advised the master of the tribunal that I was available. I remain available.” Hence, all parties know I exist.
    • Update, 2006.08.18: After getting yelled at in a meeting, which is quite a feat when it comes from a deaf person communicating through an interpreter, I redacted a remark above. You’re welcome.

And that’s just some of the news.

I expect I’ll continue to be entirely ignored. In particular, cinema chains on the losing end of that human-rights decision will prefer to do things wrong than to hire the one person in Canada who can get them doing things right. That’s certainly what the British did.

I would further add that the Privacy Commissioner’s investigator, a quintessential petite fonctionnaire, evidently had no experience with a complainant who stood up for himself. She griped at length, in all our phone calls save for one, about my tone of voice. Since, from the outset, she seemed to be siding with Famous Players on one ground of my complaint, I had reason to defend my position. (She stated it was reasonable for Famous Players to collect personal information. She made that statement even before talking to Famous Players or presenting evidence to the Commissioner. And it is the Commissioner who makes such determinations.)

As with Famous employees, I was very firm and resolute but never rude. Canadians have a hard time distinguishing those states, I gather. Nonetheless, as a public servant dealing with intrinsically contentious and adversarial cases in a complaint system, it’s her job to simply sit there and suck it up.

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Accessible cinemaFamous Players privacy complaint → My Pyrric victory against Famous Players

Published: 2005.06.24 ¶ Updated: 2005.08.05, 2006.08.18

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