First published in the November 2011 issue of The Hearing Times.
In May, I wrote a comment article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, arguing that deaf people are being let down by the UK cinema industry. The article sparked an online debate, with over 250 people commenting below the line. Soon after trying on some revolutionary subtitle glasses for BBC News, I interviewed Phil Clapp (pictured), Chief Executive of the Cinema Exhibitors Association, to get some answers and find out what cinemas are doing to improve access for deaf film fans.
Charlie: There’s been a lot of negative publicity around cinema access provision lately. I’ve written about issues facing deaf film fans, while an investigation by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign highlighted the challenges people with physical disabilities face. Is this negative publicity fair?
Phil: Where the cinema industry is perceived as failing, be that on disability and access or any other area, of course individuals and organisations have every right to voice their dissatisfaction. But we would hope that any criticism on these issues recognises how far the sector has come in recent years and acknowledges the challenges that exist in meeting the needs of disabled cinema customers. We don’t feel that some of the recent criticism of the industry took these things sufficiently into account.
At present, deaf people feel we are receiving a poor service. Cinema websites often have inaccurate information about subtitled screenings; very few subtitles screenings are scheduled, and when they are, it’s often at inconvenient, off-peak times. Then the subtitles sometimes don’t work. You mentioned the challenges of meeting access needs, but more broadly, are deaf people a priority for the cinemas?
The CEA would not defend instances where customers are given wrong or misleading information, and recognises the frustration this can cause. The growth in subtitled screenings over the last five years (there are now over 750 per week) has undoubtedly presented a challenge to the industry as it has sought to balance the needs of deaf and hearing-impaired customers and those of the wider audience, whilst seeking to maintain profitability.
750 screenings a week sounds like a lot. But could you tell me how many total screenings there are?
A rough estimate is that there are 100,000 screenings per week, spread across the entire sector, from the largest multiplexes to the smallest independent screens.
One in six people have some level of deafness, or 16%. Yet you’re saying that less than 1% of screenings are made accessible to deaf people. How can the cinema industry justify this?
The key barrier to the provision of a greater number of subtitled screenings is a financial one. All the evidence we have is that the wider audience do not wish to see subtitled screenings. Regardless of when they are scheduled, subtitled screenings have average levels of occupancy of just five per cent or less. This means cinemas are foregoing significant income or even losing money on their current subtitled provision. The only way that the number of subtitled screenings will be significantly increased is through the development of new approaches and/or new technology to support deaf and hearing-impaired customers.
But cinemas should not only be considering whether they can make more money from providing access – they also have a legal duty. The Equality Act says that deaf people should not be discriminated against, or treated less fairly in accessing everyday goods and services, such as in cinemas. I would argue that being limited to under 1% of screenings of films, and often at off peak times, is treating deaf people less favourably. Would you agree?
Cinemas absolutely understand their duties under the Equality Act, which are to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in order that deaf or hearing-impaired people (or other people with disabilities) should be able to access cinema. The financial cost of providing that adjustment or service is a material consideration in deciding what is and is not reasonable in this context.
What are the costs involved with a subtitled screening?
The costs involved in a subtitled screening are broadly comparable to those in a standard screening, be it on 35mm film or digital. The ‘cost’ to the cinema is in the income foregone from what would be anticipated to be a significantly better-attended standard screening at a peak time.
With regard to hearing people not liking to watch films with subtitles, don’t they just need to be informed that a screening is being subtitled so they can go to the later, non-subtitled screening? Is that so hard for cinemas to do?
The problem seems to be not that some hearing people don’t like subtitles, but that the vast majority of the hearing audience don’t like them, and many will not come back once turned away. The reality is that cinemas cannot afford to miss out on that level of income.
I’ve worked in theatre access for four years, where caption units – a bit like subtitles – are placed on stage, and audiences accept captions being part of their experience because they are there for deaf people. What’s staggering is in cinemas with up to 20 screens, there are no subtitled screenings at 7.30pm on a Friday evening. Why do cinemas feel they can afford to lose income from one in six potential customers?
Given the typical cinema-going audience, I would question the one in six figure, but there is a wider point here. Most cinemas – certainly those operated by the main chains – are run on a commercial basis. Most cinemas that screen subtitled shows do so on a weekday evening and/or a weekend afternoon because they do not believe that they would see greater income from screening a subtitled show at 7.30 on a Friday evening (to take your example).
Isn’t low attendance at subtitled screenings due to off-peak scheduling and lack of reliable information? Many deaf people would also say that they have been treated poorly by the cinemas which has put them off. So what are cinemas doing to win them back?
The evidence we have suggests that subtitled screenings have much lower attendances than standard shows of the same film at the same time. Most cinemas will advertise subtitled shows on their websites and the industry funds yourlocalcinema.com, providing weekly listings and an email alert service to over 60,000 people. We’re improving information flows between cinemas and distributors around subtitling formats – a common cause of problems. And we’re looking to establish industry-wide benchmarks to indicate how many weekly subtitled screenings the public might expect at each site.
For me, and for some deaf people, we imagine a kind of utopian ideal, involving; muliplexes showing a subtitled film at least once a night, at peak time; staff being deaf aware and knowing when subtitled screenings are scheduled; information being far easier to access on cinemas own websites (instead of having to rely on Your Local Cinema). Is that ideal, which is very reasonable really, ever likely to come true?
Some of those are more realisable than others. The current approach requires distributors, technical partners and cinemas themselves each to play a role. Only one stage needs to go wrong for customers to be disappointed. There is of course no excuse for cinema staff not knowing a subtitled screening is scheduled, nor – technology allowing – for not screening an advertised subtitled show. We’re looking at streamlining communication at each link of the chain. And digitisation, likely to be completed by early 2013, should help, though the economics still mean that subtitled screenings are unlikely to be played at peak times. That’s why operators are actively exploring new technology such as subtitling glasses.
What do you think the glasses can offer deaf cinema goers?
I think most in the industry are hopeful that the subtitling glasses will go a long way to solving some of the current issues, not least in that they will in principle enable deaf and hearing-impaired people to go to any screening and be able to see subtitles. We don’t yet have an idea of cost, but the hope is that if there is sufficient take-up here and in other territories, then economies of scale will kick in. And of course issues of staff training and communication will remain key.