Block E movie technology for the disabled is a big hit

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February 17, 2003 // UPDATED 4:40 pm - April 27, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Despite an initial reluctance to install movie-theater technology for the sight and hearing disabled, Crown Theatre representatives say customer response has been "tremendous."

According to Jeremy Welman, director of marketing for Connecticut-based Crown, an average of 240 people a month have used the technology in two Block E theaters. Of those, about half are hearing impaired and half are visually impaired. Overall, about 36,000 customers visit Block E Crown Theaters each month, he said.

Two of the 15 theaters in Block E are equipped to accommodate descriptive audio and rear window captioning. People with visual impairments can use headsets to hear extremely detailed narration -- such as silent subtleties like a meaningful look between friends. Those with hearing loss can use special reflective devices that display captions from the rear of the theater. In both cases, typical moviegoers won't see anything different as they watch the movie.

"We issue closed captioning and descriptive audio [equipment] every day. On the weekends it's more," said Block E senior theater manager Allison Van Buren. "Last week we had 30 people go see "Catch Me If You Can" on audio descriptive. It's really unbelievable."

Not all films take advantage of the technology. For example, Crown recently showed "Catch Me If You Can" in one of the disabled-enabled theaters and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" in the other because both movies have the technology. "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," however, never made it to either theater because the studio did not add the technology to the film.

Van Buren said Crown has received many calls asking if "Two Towers" would be screened with technology for the hearing and/or sight disabled. The only hope, he says, is closed-captioning -- text imprinted on the screen for everyone to see. "What we're hoping is that [the studio] does closed-captioning sometime soon so we can do a special re-engagement of "Two Towers" for people who wanted to see it," she said.

However, closed captioning won't solve the problem for people who cannot physically see the movie in the first place.

Said Wally Waranka of the Minnesota Council of the Blind, "The biggest frustration has been getting the movie industry and the companies who produce the movies to understand the need for descriptive audio and start producing more movies with descriptive audio. That's still a struggle on a national level that we deal with."

The Block E theaters are the only Crown theaters in the country offering the technology and the only ones in Minnesota showing first-run Hollywood films.

Because this is Crown's first endeavor using this technology, Waranka said they have a few bugs to work out.

During a movie night sponsored by American Council of the Blind in Minnesota at Block E, Waranka said the descriptive audio began repeating itself from an earlier scene in the movie.

"[Crown] gave us free passes to come back again," he said. "Some people may gripe and say this or that didn't go right. I say give them some time - this is brand-new for them, too."

Those who wish to use this technology at Block E can check the Crown Web site at www.crowntheatres.com or call 338-5900 to find out which movies are being shown in the two equipped theaters. Then they just check out the needed equipment at the concierge desk in Block E.