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May 8, 2003

Crown Theatres to offer narration for blind, deaf

From: Pioneer Press Online, IL - May 8, 2003


Glenview residents Glenn and Julie Wiemer sit as far away as possible from other people when they go to most movie theaters.

That's because Julie Wiemer must describe to her husband, who is blind, what's going on when the actors aren't talking.

"She tries to whisper to me," Glenn Wiemer, a teacher at Washburne School in Winnetka, said.

There is a better way for the blind or visually impaired and the deaf or hard-of-hearing to enjoy first-run movies, although the technology has only recently been available at three theaters in the Chicago area -- two in the city and one in Lombard.

Now OliverMcMillan, developer of The Glen Town Center, has agreed to install the two technologies, called descriptive video and rear captioning, at the Crown Theatres it is building on the site of the former Hangar One.

Thomas Decker, director of special projects for Connecticut-based Crown Theatres, stressed the systems will initially be used on a test basis, primarily because the motion picture industry has not yet embraced any one form of equipment as the standard.

"Until it is universally accepted, there's always a little bit of controversy," Decker said. "But we want to make a right decision, as a good corporate decision and as a business decision. If there's clientele we're not touching, it would be silly of us not to put it in."

The systems run through the same device, which costs about $15,000. Initially, OliverMcMillan will probably equip four of the 10 auditoriums to run the device, with plans to rotate two devices among the four equipped auditoriums. That way, if a movie runs for several weeks, the device can be moved during the extended run to be available for a different movie.

The rear, or open, captioning system displays reversed captions on a light-emitting diode text display that can be accessed from anywhere in the theater by patrons.

The descriptive video system provides narrated descriptions of key visual elements during pauses in the soundtrack. A blind or visually impaired person hears the narration through a wireless set of headphones.

The descriptive narrative explains what is happening when the sound track includes only explosions or music. As an example, this is the narrative for a scene from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

"Dudley pushes Harry down and presses against the glass. As Harry glares, the glass disappears. Dudley promptly falls in the cage's pool of water. The python moves its thick body over the railing and slithers out, flicking its tongue at Harry as it passes."

And that's what Glenn Wiemer would hear through headphones.

"See how much more it enables a blind person to enjoy what's going on, without bothering his neighbors?" he said. "I can sit anywhere in an equipped theater and (the headphones) will pick it up. It's such a more enjoyable experience."

Wiemer, the father of 22-year-old twins, lives in the Glenview house in which he grew up. A teacher at Washburne for 28 years, he progressively lost his eyesight until 1990, when he became blind.

After hearing Crown Theatres would manage 10 screens at The Glen Town Center, he suggested to Don Owen, Glenview's director of redevelopment, that the technologies benefiting the disabled be explored. Owen then lobbied Paul Buss, OliverMcMillan's chief development officer, who was quick to agree.

"I think they all realize it's not going to be a huge sales boon. There aren't that many people and there aren't that many films, so it won't have that big of an income effect," Owen said.

"But I think the public relations and marketing effect of being able to say they have it will be a benefit," Owen added. "For all those good reasons, from the business side of the house, they said, sure we can do this."

Decker said the systems have been well accepted by patrons at Crown's Minneapolis theaters, although the number of films produced and distributed with the formats is fairly limited.

"We're doing it because it's not only a good business decision, but it's the right thing to do."

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