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MOPIX in the News

Deaf and blind moviegoers take in first-run Menace

LA Daily News
By Douglas Haberman
May 22,1999

SHERMAN OAKS -- Deaf and blind moviegoers are plunging into the "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" phenomenon at the General Cinema Sherman Oaks Cinemas - without plugging into a mysterious force. It's technology that is with them. And that allows them to be with all the other fans in the theater taking in the blockbuster prequel, instead of having to wait months or years for the closed-captioned or descriptive video versions.

"Two thumbs way up," J.J. Puorro, a Northridge man who is deaf, wrote in response to a question. Puorro attended the 10 a.m. showing of "Phantom Menace" Friday with two friends who also are deaf. It was the second time the trio had seen the much-anticipated movie. "No, six thumbs," he said, adding his friends' assessment of the "Star Wars" prequel. "We are all caught up in the frenzy as well."

The Van Nuys Boulevard movie theater is one of only three cinemas in the country -- the others are in Seattle and Atlanta -- offering the captioning and narration equipment that makes first-run movie-going possible for people who are deaf, blind or have impaired hearing or vision.

"We were the first commercial theater in the world to put this in," said Bill Smith, general manager of the Sherman Oaks cinema, where many people with vision and hearing disabilities came to see "Titanic."

To deaf patrons, the theater gives a rectangular plastic reflector on a stick, which they place in their seat's cupholder. It reflects text projected backward on the theater's back wall by a light-emitting diode. That way, other movie viewers don't have to read subtitles on the screen.

Deaf viewers can read the captioning on their own reflector to catch all the dialogue. The reflector must be centered just right, deaf viewers said Friday, and the system requires shifting your vision back and forth between the reflector and the screen.

"You have to be really quick," said Mike Dubowe of Agoura Hills. "You have to get used to it." But deaf people are still ecstatic about the technology, he said, "because they can be a part" of the first-run experience.

"I can't understand (a movie) without any captioning," said Michael Worstell of Portland. When he was planning a visit to his daughter in the Long Beach area, he asked her about finding a theater that has captioning so they could see "Phantom Menace."

Michael Barrett, a Hollywood resident who is deaf, said before the new technology arrived 18 months ago, he would look for a book version of any movie he wanted to see and would read it first. "Now I can understand what is going on" with the technology. Puorro said he grew up without captioned movies.

"So this is nice -- to be able to see the premiere along with all hearing people, not on video two years later."

Some theaters offer captioned movies for the deaf, he said, "but they only have one showing" for the deaf community. "With this technology, I can come to the movies anytime." For blind moviegoers, the theater provides a headset through which they can hear a highly descriptive narration during the moments there is no dialogue.

"In the conference room, the Jedi Knights draw their light sabers as gas slowly fills the room," the narrator says to describe an early scene in the movie, for example. Both technologies were developed by the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen paid for the captioning and narration of "Phantom Menace" while the Eastman Kodak Co. paid for the equipment. Smith, the theater general manager, said deaf customers tend to outnumber the blind by at least five to one. He said this may be because deaf people can drive but blind people must arrange for transportation.

Brian Albriton, a reader-adviser at the Braille Institute library in Hollywood, said that was exactly why he hasn't been to the Sherman Oaks movie theater. In a telephone interview, he said blind people would have to wait months for the descriptive video version of "Phantom Menace," so the theater's technology offers a nice alternative.

"Considering the cost of movies, it shouldn't be difficult to do the descriptive narration on every movie that comes out," Albriton said. "I'd like to see all theaters do this."

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