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MOPIX in the News

General Cinema Brings Movies to Deaf and Blind

Herald and News
by Hilary Burke
August 2, 1999

Movies are rich in subtle jokes, lush cinematography, and blaring sound effects.

Until now, deaf and blind people could only enjoy pieces of a first-run movie, and needed sign language or whispered descriptions to help them understand the plot.

But in May, General Cinema in Clifton Commons became the eighth movie theater in the nation to offer rear- window captioning and Descriptive Video Service technology that allows visually impaired and hearing- impaired people to enjoy the latest movies along with everybody else.

"It was the first time that any of us in my family can remember that we went out to the movies together," said Carl Augusto, president of the American Foundation for the Blind, based in New York.

He, his wife and their teen-age son and daughter traveled 40 minutes from Mahwah to see the new Star Wars movie, "The Phantom Menace." And then he went back to see "Big Daddy" with his seeing daughter and her friend.

He and his family used to find it too distracting to go movies, because family members had to interrupt dialogue to explain to him what was going on.

But now, with a headset that uses Descriptive Video Service technology, Augusto doesn't have to ask for updates. The DVS narrates the movie's action during silences on screen.

"It fills in a verbal picture," said John Toner, the manager at General Cinema. "It tells you what's in the room, how this person is moving. It really turns it into a talking book."

The volume-adjustable headsets are available just inside the theater, along with the rear-window captioning equipment useful to deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

An individual screen reflects green-colored captioning from the back wall of one auditorium at General Cinema. The translucent, rectangular screen has a base that fits into a cup holder, and the viewer can adjust the screen to the best caption-reading angle.

The captions convey all the dialogue plus sounds like "whistles and beeps." (There are a lot of those in Star Wars movies).

With the headphones on, the viewer can hear the dialogue from inside the theater and the additional descriptive information. The Star Wars narration includes phrases like "the captain's worried gaze follows them" and "creatures of all sizes walk past."

General Cinema is the only theater chain in the United States that is using this technology, which it has installed in eight locations, including Baltimore, Philadelphia and Clifton. The recently opened Clifton theater serves the entire New York metropolitan region.

Toner estimated that between 50 and 60 people have used the headsets, and between 300 and 400 have used the rear-window equipment since the equipment was installed two months ago. One couple, both hearing- impaired, drove from Syracuse to try out the new devices.

"I have a lot of people waiting to see what's next," Toner said.

And they are waiting. Most movie studios do not pay to have the captioning or audio descriptions produced with their films. So not that many films are available.

But as more theaters install the equipment, more studios will respond to the demand.

In a year and a half, only three movies were made with the rear window and DVS technology, according to Brian Callaghan of General Cinema. In the past four months, though, four movies have been produced - and shown.

"The reluctance of the studios is much less now because there are [more] systems installed," Callaghan said. He said it costs the studios around $12,000 to provide the captioning and narration, which WGBH public television in Boston produces.

The rear-window captioning isn't the only option for deaf or hard-of-hearing people. Some theaters have limited showings for open-captioned movies, where the captions appear on the screen. But open captioning isn't available for first-run movies.

Richard Cohen, past president of the Northwest Jersey Association of the Deaf, went with his 12-year-old hearing son to see Star Wars at Clifton Commons.

"Usually he doesn't want to wait until it is open captioned, so it was nice to be one of the first to see premieres," said Cohen, who had helped pressure the Clearview theater chain to provide open captioning.

And with the movie showing constantly in one auditorium, viewers don't have to rearrange their schedules just to catch a film.

Elisa Pagan went to the General Cinema's grand opening in April, but didn't know they had installed DVS. Her daughter, 27, was blinded by diabetes three years ago. They go to the movies, but Pagan says it can be hard.

"You still have to explain what's going on, especially when it's quiet," the Passaic resident said. "That is great they're doing that."

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