2006 da Vinci
The Ken Mason
The Philadelphia Inquirer
by Gloria A. Hoffner
July 1, 1999
Kathryn MacDonald's love for movies - especially high-energy adventures such as the Star Wars saga - has brought her long bouts of frustration since she lost her hearing five years ago.
She can still get all the hype about the latest hot movie, thanks to the closed captions on television. But nothing has been able to bridge the gulf between her and the action at the theater.
If a new system that MacDonald sampled last week catches on with more films, she may soon be going back to the movies.
MacDonald was among the customers who tried out the system recently in a specially adapted theater at General Cinema Corp.'s Plymouth Meeting 12, adjacent to the Plymouth Meeting Mall.
Dubbed MoPix, it is designed to make movies accessible to people with hearing and visual impairments.
MacDonald was impressed. The Star Wars fanatic had already ventured back to a non-MoPix theater for Episode I - The Phantom Menace, but felt she had missed crucial portions of the film.
For that reason, she had pretty much given up on attending first-run movies, despite her friends' urgings.
"I would only kind of get what was going on," said MacDonald, 22, of Glenside, "so I just stopped going."
Not so with MoPix.
"This was great!" MacDonald said after watching Phantom with a MoPix assist one day last week. "I could understand everything that was happening. I will definitely be back again."
It won't be that easy to find movies adapted to MoPix, though - at least for now.
In the meantime, GCC's Plymouth Meeting theater has equipped one of its 12 screening rooms with MoPix. It is the first in the state, and one of only six General Cinema theaters in the nation, to be equipped with MoPix, according to Andrew Trabosh, the theater's general manager.
But the system has some powerful and determined supporters - including a Boston public-television station that has championed such accessibility, and Microsoft Corp. cofounder Paul Allen, who paid for The Phantom Menace to be specially prepared for a MoPix-equipped theater.
MoPix is actually a pair of technologies, designed to allow people with restricted vision or hearing to sit in an ordinary-looking movie theater alongside everybody else.
For MacDonald and others with hearing loss, the key is the Rear Window Captioning System. Patrons are issued a reflector with a gooseneck base that fits into the cup-holder alongside their seat. The reflector is adjustable, and picks up captions from a screen at the back of the theater - the decidedly non-Hitchcockian "Rear Window."
With the reflector - actually a transparent acrylic panel similar to those used for TelePrompTers - the captions can be adjusted to appear as if they are on or just below the movie screen, whatever the viewer prefers. The viewer moves the reflector as one adjusts a car's rear-view mirror. No one else sees the captions.
For those who are blind or have limited vision, the key is the DVS Theatrical System - with DVS standing for Descriptive Video Service.
Patrons are given a headset to wear during the film. At natural pauses in the dialogue they hear rich descriptions of characters, settings and the action.
The headset's volume is adjustable, so that listening will not interfere with enjoyment of the movie's primary soundtrack, which headset users hear through the theater's main sound system.
Television has led the way over movies in opening up to the roughly 22 million hearing-impaired and 12 million visually impaired people living in the United States.
Television captioning for those with hearing problems dates at least back to the early 1970s, when Boston's WGBH-TV took on the mission of making movies and television more accessible, according to Mary Watkins, the public station's communications director.
In 1972, Watkins said, WGBH broadcast the first open-captioned television program. Closed captioning, which produces captions from data encoded into an ordinary TV signal, was introduced in 1980. By 1989, closed captioning was in use in all prime-time commercial programming and on some cable shows.
Descriptive-narration programming has been slower to catch on, though it has been available on some shows on the Public Broadcasting System since 1990, Watkins said.
Movies have lagged far behind, with both systems available on only a limited number of films once they have been adapted for video release. And Watkins said those specially made video versions tend to come out months or even years after a movie's theatrical release. Occasionally, theatrical showings will be accompanied by someone translating the dialogue into sign language, or an open-caption version will be produced and shown.
"For years consumers have been saying, 'What you have done is wonderful, but we want to see the movies with everyone else,' " Watkins said. "Our goal became tomake every movie accessible."
Both MoPix systems were developed by WGBH's Motion Picture Access Project; the Rear Window system was developed jointly with Boston inventor Rufus Butler Sader.
The MoPix system recently earned WGBH the 1999 Excellence in Access Award from according to Brian Callaghan, a GCC spokesman. Its first one opened in 1997 in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with the film The Jackal. Six films have been adapted so far; this month, there will be an adapted version of Big Daddy, though it is not scheduled to be shown in Plymouth Meeting.
Other GCC MoPix theaters are in Atlanta; Seattle; Owings Mills, Md., near Baltimore; Clifton, N.J., outside New York; and Lombard, Ill., near Chicago. A theater in Framingham, Mass., outside Boston, is expected to open by the end of July.
It costs about $16,000 to equip one auditorium, Callaghan said, and about $12,000 per movie to make the specialized CD that provides the captions and narration. Headsets and reflector screens cost $100 each; General Cinema has provided 15 of each device per equipped auditorium.
Microsoft's Allen owns a second MoPix-equipped theater in Seattle, which also is run by General Cinema,Callaghan said, and paid to have Phantom Menace captioned and described. Eastman Kodak Co. has agreed to fund up to eight additional theaters.
The movies' producers have paid to adapt the rest of the films: Titanic, The Mask of Zorro, 8MM, Entrapment, and Big Daddy, Watkins said.
Watkins said it was unclear why more films had not been adapted, given that the cost is minimal compared with the millions of dollars spent on major movies.
"It's like a chicken-and-egg problem," she said. "The studios say, when there are enough theaters equipped to show the special recording, then we'll pay to have it done. And the theaters say, when there are enough films available, we'll adapt the theaters."
She said she hoped that ticket sales from the first few films and theaters would prove that a profitable audience exists.
Meanwhile, theatergoers welcome MoPix's first forays.
Matt Steven, 10, who is blind, saw Phantom last week at Plymouth Meeting, and was brought from Upper Darby by his mother, Joan.
He was plenty pleased, and Joan Steven said she hoped it would be the first of many movies that Matt would be able to more fully enjoy.
"Last Memorial Day we [the Steven family] went to see Mulan, but Joe had to rely on his cousin telling him what was happening on the screen, and that can be hard," Joan Steven said. "This way we can all attend movies together and Joe will know exactly what is going on."
WGBH's Web site (http://ncam.wgbh.org) has information on all MoPix-equipped theaters. Times andlistings for the MoPix auditorium at the General Cinema Plymouth Meeting 12 are available at 610.397.0780.