15 screens and nothing on

Share this:
March 19, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

Block E is getting a $39 million city subsidy, but the blind and hearing-impaired may not get the technology they need to enjoy movies in the new 15-screen theater

Politicians and voters have endlessly debated whether the city of Minneapolis should have spent $39 million to subsidize the Block E theater-dining-entertainment complex. But with Block E's fall opening a virtual certainty, a group of disabled activists are asking why the owners of a 15-screen movie theater won't spend as little as $11,000 so people with sight and hearing impairments can better enjoy the films.

Everyone agrees that technology exists to make film-going far richer for people with disabilities. For the blind, descriptive video (DVS) offers a narrator who can augment dialogue and sound with descriptions of what's happening on-screen. Rear-window projection provides captions readable by people with hearing loss, but invisible to everyone else.

So far, the Block E theaters' management company, Connecticut-based Crown Theatres, has refused to install the technology, saying not enough films are available and the technology might soon be obsolete.

Disability-rights activists say there are plenty of films out there and they shouldn't wait for technological certainty -- especially considering Block E's multi-million-dollar public subsidy. "How can so much public money go into a project that disregards the needs of so many citizens?" asks Downtown resident and access consultant Mari Griffin.

The short answer is, fairly easily. The federal Americans With Disabilities Act requires that theaters be accessible, but not enjoyable once the disabled get there. And while the city has a Minneapolis Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities that has loudly objected to the lack of technology, the city did not require the equipment when it signed the $39 million development deal. That leaves the theater owner in the driver's seat - and so far, the objections have fallen on deaf ears.

The technology

How do DVS and rear-window projection improve the experience for people with disabilities?

DVS technology is relatively simple. Theaters receive a CD with the narrator's track that is synched to, and woven around, normal film dialogue and sound. The DVS audio is beamed to the theatergoer wearing a Walkman-like device.

Let's get the politically incorrect question out of the way first: why worry about accommodating the blind for what is, after all, an intensely visual medium?

"That is a good question you ask," said Joni Metcalf charitably. "I am the parent of a child with a terminal illness which has taken away his vision. My child has a great imagination. He can get more out of a movie than I can, if someone is describing it to him. Just because their eyes don't work doesn't mean their imagination is gone as well."

OK, so why not avoid the theater hassle and just wait for DVDs -- which regularly come with DVS tracks? "It's important for my child to be socially interacting with others and this is one way of getting that experience," said Metcalf, a White Bear Lake resident. "It's nice to take my son out for a date. Hearing it audio-described means we can both enjoy the movie."

Or as Wally Waranka, a St. Paul employment consultant who has been blind since birth, noted, "The smell of popcorn popping, the sticky floor -- and there's nothing like a theater with the sound cranked up, the vibration of the bass. Plus I do have friends who can see, and we can all go to the movies and go out to dinner afterward and talk about it."

Waranka recently traveled to Milwaukee -- the closest commercial theater with disabled-friendly technology -- to see "A Beautiful Mind," about schizophrenic math genius John Nash.

Usually, Waranka just hears dialogue and sound effects. With DVS narration, he picked up critical non-verbal cues. "There's an important part where Nash is looking at newspapers and the letters come floating off the page and are illuminated," said Waranka. "I wouldn't have known that without the description. There's another scene where he puts a hand on a car to stop it from going - I wouldn't have gotten that."

Rear-window projection, which helps the hearing-impaired, also uses a CD synched to the film that sends text to an illuminated display underneath the film projector. The display scrolls text backwards; the filmgoer has a smoked-Plexiglas screen that reflects the words the right way. The screen is attached to a gooseneck that fits in the cup holder. The person with hearing loss can read descriptions of sound and other non-dialogue information, instead of just relying on lip-reading. Anyone without the screen sees the film the usual way, without captions.

The objection

So why won't theater owners just bite the bullet and spend a few thousand dollars to equip even one theater?

Tom Becker, Crown's director of special projects, emphasizes that his chain is complying with all ADA requirements, including seating in all levels for those who are mobility-impaired.

Of DVS and rear-window equipment, Becker said, "You're talking 10 grand per theater, so $150,000 - but money's not the issue. I could be spending $150,000 and not get a film, unless you make a special arrangement."

Mary Watkins is outreach director for WGBH-TV, which developed DVS for TV a generation ago and adapted it for the movies. The company also perfected rear-window projection. She said there are currently five Hollywood movies available: "The Time Machine," "Return to Neverland," "Beauty and the Beast," "Beautiful Mind" and "Black Hawk Down."

She added, "We'll have a whole summer full of movies, too, including 'Spiderman.'"

Watkins said studios, not theater chains, pay the cost of DVS and rear-window text, and theaters don't have to pay anything extra once they've installed the equipment.

Becker worries that DVS and rear-window projection could soon become relics, especially since they have been adopted only fitfully - just 25 commercial theaters nationwide, excluding IMAX theaters (the Science Museum in St. Paul has one). However, Watkins said there is no competing technology out there, and DVS and rear-window can be adapted to digital cinema if it ever emerges.

DVS has few detractors, but rear-window is not perfect: some non-disabled viewers have been distracted if they can see the text reflection. Even some people with disabilities have complained that the screen is tricky to adjust to properly catch the text reflection, and say it's like carrying a golf club into the theater. (Others ask where they are supposed to put their drink.)

Becker also has safety concerns; the golf-club-like screens, he said, "have become a weapon."

Watkins replied, "I don't even know how to respond to that. That's the first time I've heard that."

Becker insists Crown is committed to disabled access; he plans to schedule two "open-caption" film screenings per month at the Block E complex. In open-caption, the words are printed on the film, so everyone can see them. Such screenings are rare because everyone doesn't want to watch a subtitled English-language film.

Watkins said limited-viewing open-caption screenings hardly provide equal accommodation. "Just imagine you were told you could see a movie, but you have to wait a month and you can only go on Tuesday morning to see it."

The city's process

The first DVS and rear-window systems went into commercial theaters in 1997. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency could have required the technology before it signed off on the city's Block E subsidy three years later.

Phil Handy, MCDA senior project coordinator, said the city required the developer, McCaffrey Interests, to do what it requires all developers to do: get proper permits and approvals, including ADA review.

ADA became law before DVS and rear-window were on the market. ADA specifically states theater owners don't have to show films with always-visible captions, because the vast majority of non-disabled would have their experience diminished. The law is silent on rear-window captioning and DVS, although Becker said an Oregon judge ruled theaters were not required to install it.

In the city's process, the MCDA signs the deal first and the city's Commission on People with Disabilities must seek anything above the legal minimum later -- without a city check as leverage.

Handy said getting the commission involved earlier would be unwieldy: for example, when the MCDA negotiated the deal, the theater operator had not even been picked.

Handy said including disabled activists during negotiations would create a "totally unworkable process. Where do you stop? Who else should involved in drafting the development agreement? What about the American Institute of Architects? What about the Consumer's Union?"

If so many interest groups were at the table, Handy said, Block E would remain "another 20 years of surface parking."

Joan Willshire, a Downtown resident who chairs the Disability Committee's access subcommitee, said Minneapolis public projects should demand a higher standard. "Minneapolis wants a state-of-the-art theater - there's no reason we shouldn't have the best of the best. We're not spoiled little disabled brats. [DVS and rear-window captioning] should be a positive, a way to go after another huge minority population, people with disabilities."

Evidence is mixed about whether the disabled turn out when the technology is there.

The General Cinema chain was the first to embrace DVS and rear-window, which it now has in 20 theaters. Spokesman Brian Callaghan said, "Usage has been less than expected in most markets. We're contacted by a lot of deaf and blind individuals who say,' we'll come and bring friends.' There should be a big boom, but [attendance] has been a dozen or two per movie title for a week or two run in more remote locations. In urban locations, we might get 100 or more."

Callaghan allows that the technology is more likely to be profitable in places that people with disabilites can more easily get to.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) said that's why the Block E project is fertile ground. "One of the best things about Downtown is that it's easily accessible by bus, and lot of people with disabilities already live here. It's ironic to have a premier movie theater next to a large number of people with disabilities, and not have the technology to let them enjoy the film!"

Whether the city changes its review process in the future, Willshire said it's vital that Crown install the technology now, because retrofitting will be more expensive later.

However, unless Crown changes its mind, the local objections won't mean much.

Crown's Becker sounds a conciliatory note: "To be frank, I'd like to wait until we're closer to the opening date to start negotiating. I'd like to start showing open-caption films. We don't rule out anything. Maybe the answer [to DVS and rear-window] is yes. I'd certainly keep the door open."