Who remembers Dolby’s ScreenTalk ? Ten years ago it was a revolutionary system whereby using a small projector subtitles could be projected onto the bottom of a screen showing 35mm film, or displayed through a reflective system mounted at the rear of the cinema, enabling deaf and hearing impaired cinema patrons to enjoy the latest film releases. (It also enabled real-time audio descriptions for the visually impaired.) This eliminated the needed for special and costly 35mm prints with subtitles in English laser burnt in.
At a time when DVDs and television captioning were giving deaf people the ability to enjoy films like never before, it seemed the cinema was finally not too far behind. Yet ScreenTalk never took off in a major way, primarily because digital cinema was ‘just around the corner’ and with it, the promise of subtitling ANY show at ZERO extra cost.
It has taken another decade for digital cinema to become ubiquitous, but surely it has been worth the wait for deaf patrons? Sadly, the reality today is that cinemas are still very much failing deaf and hearing impaired patrons, despite there being no technical obstacles to subtitling film screenings.
This issue was first highlighted in 2011 by Charlie Swinbourne in a Guardian article called “Cinemas are letting deaf people down” where he pointed out that “Subtitled screenings are unreliable and hard to find, but digital technology means cinemas now have little excuse,” even though less than half of all cinemas in the UK were digital at the time.
He asks us to imagine going to a film screening where the sound ends up not working, cinema staff try to fix it, fail and issue you with an apology and a comp ticket. That’s all too often what happened with subtitles for deaf patrons.
For deaf people, the chain of events I’ve described isn’t just a one-off – it’s happened to nearly every deaf cinema-goer I know. Except it’s not the sound that goes missing, it’s subtitles. Which we need to understand the film. Right now, deaf film fans have very little trust left in cinema chains, and many people I know have stopped bothering; they prefer to watch DVDs (or, ahem, downloads) at home.
He highlights the case of members of a Facebook group called ‘Deaf people are alive 7 days a week, not just Sunday/Monday/Tuesday’ set up by frustrated deaf and hearing impaired cinema fans.
Another of the [Facebook] group’s members, Martin Griffiths, told me that three out of his last four visits to his local cinema in Cardiff ended without him seeing the advertised subtitled film. While his ticket was refunded, his travel and time were not compensated for.
Missing a film might not seem like a big deal, but I know deaf people who’ve been let down on special occasions, or couples who’ve booked a babysitter so they can have their first night out in months, only to return home early, disappointed. As Woolfe says, “the reluctance to improve the service for deaf film fans is extraordinary. It’s almost a ‘like it or lump it’ attitude. We have a right to much better access.”
So three years on, with all cinemas digitised and subtitling more established you would think that this would be sorted. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.