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February 5, 2006

Not all theaters equal for deaf fans

From: Richmond Times Dispatch, VA - Feb 5, 2006

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Every night for the past month and a half, all hell breaks loose on top of the Empire State Building.

A giant gorilla roars and thumps his chest. Biplane machine guns spit a shower of noisy bullets. And a damsel in distress shrieks for her life.

Movie audiences across the country whoop and cheer through the violent racket, but Ricky Taylor can't hear a lick of it.

The day after Peter Jackson's "King Kong" arrived in theaters, the deaf 32-year-old fired off a frustrated e-mail.

"I'm sick of it, frankly," wrote Taylor. "I'm sick of reading reviews and your article glorifying something that I cannot see for months."

For hearing-impaired movie fans, the local multiplex isn't exactly a buffet of celluloid delights.

In Richmond, they have exactly one choice. The Regal Cinemas at Short Pump is the only local theater that offers open-captioned (OC) films. Regal offers two showings of one open-captioned film every day. The film selection changes every three days.

The open-captioning process involves laser-etching subtitles and visual icons directly onto a 35 mm print. In addition to dialogue, deaf patrons are alerted to pertinent background sound effects and important musical cues.

InSight Cinema, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, was started by Nanci Linke-Ellis to increase the number of OC films shown in the United States.

"We get a certain number of prints," said Linke-Ellis. "The more prints the studios give us, the more we have out there."

Linke-Ellis lost her hearing as a child. In 1994 she was fitted with a cochlear implant that improves her lip reading and allows her to talk on the phone.

The first OC film that she saw was 1992's "The Bodyguard," starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. She watched it in a packed theater at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. Afterward, she was so moved that she pulled the car over and cried. The experience changed her life.

In the beginning, open-captioned screenings were rare. Today, more films are reaching more cities. Unfortunately, there are still kinks in the system. Depending on the theater, a film's OC debut can come weeks after its initial wide release.

The number of titles is growing and the wait is shrinking, but not fast enough for Ricky Taylor. In addition, he's upset that the screenings aren't exactly scheduled during prime time.

"The number of showings is appalling," said Taylor. "In Washington, D.C., and New York, I had the options of seeing films at my own choosing. Here I can't."

Last week, Short Pump featured "Big Momma's House 2" on Tuesday at 9:50 a.m. and 4:35 p.m., Wednesday at 1:50 and 7:15 p.m. and Thursday at 4:35 and 9:50 p.m.

Taylor said most of those times are less than ideal for people who work during the day. And since he lives in Hanover, getting to Short Pump takes about 45 minutes.

"We put films in theaters where the audiences are most developed," said Linke-Ellis. "The films are going to come. It's just a matter of time."

Theaters are not required by law to offer captioned films. The Americans With Disabilities Act covers only the physical structure of the theater. Linke-Ellis said what shows up on the screen is the property of the film studios and is protected by the First Amendment.

Linke-Ellis said it's important for deaf patrons to keep communicating with their local theaters, "but there is a certain bottom-line reality."

Not surprisingly, that reality is money.

Movie theaters aren't too keen on giving up a screen on Saturday night if it's going to go unwatched. Entertainment, like most forms of commerce, depends on supply and demand.

"The challenge of open captioning is to have butts in seats," said Linke-Ellis. "You need to build an audience."

Delivering the big-screen experience to the hearing-impaired is still a grass-roots effort. Captioning advocates find themselves negotiating among local communities, theater owners and Hollywood.

"Chains and studios are still doing everything voluntarily," said Mary Watkins, outreach director for the Media Access Group at WGBH. "Some consumers are happy . . . some are not."

The Boston-based public broadcaster pioneered captioning for television in the 1970s. It owns the patent for Rear Window Captioning (RWC), a closed-caption option that allows deaf patrons to view subtitles with a reflective plastic screen.

The screen sits on an adjustable arm that fits into the cup holder. An LED device mounted on the back wall displays the film captions backward so that they appear correct when viewed by the patron.

"We wanted to make films available the day they debuted," said Watkins.

Unlike open-captioned films, however, Rear Window Captioning requires theaters to invest in new technology. Installing the system in one theater costs $7,200.

Currently, no Richmond theaters provide RWC. The nearest locations are in Williamsburg, Virginia Beach and Fairfax.

In the deaf community, there are fans and critics of both options. And as technology threatens to make film stock obsolete, both OC and RWC seem ripe to be upstaged.

"We're on the brink of digital," said Linke-Ellis. "It's going to make [delivering films to a deaf audience] much easier."

Until then, a pair of glasses built to deliver personal captions is in development, and Linke-Ellis is betting that the new invention will turn out to be the "Holy Grail of captioning technology."

That's the good news.

The bad news is that, in the next 10 years, more and more people will be looking for that Holy Grail.

"The audience is growing exponentially," said Linke-Ellis.

According to the Better Hearing Institute, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, more than 31 million Americans suffer from hearing loss. Linke-Ellis said one in four people will have impaired hearing by 2030.

Meanwhile, she said, we can routinely get our hearing checked, turn down the volume on our iPods and stereos, and help get the word out about movie options for the hearing-impaired.

That way, when the show starts and the lights go out, not everybody is left in the dark.

Contact staff writer Pete Humes at or (804) 649-6733.

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