February 8, 2023


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Why film festivals and all movie theaters require open captioning

3 min read

Filmmaker Alison O’Daniel appears in the next section of the Sundance Film Festival with “The Tuba Thieves,” an innovative feature commentary on deafness. Here, he writes about the pain of closed captioning at film festivals and the long-overdue adoption of open captioning for all movie theaters worldwide.

I’m the writer-director of “The Tuba Thieves,” a feature film playing in the 2023 Sundance Film Festival’s postseason. It follows a specific and strange crime wave in Southern California from 2011 to 2013. It is not a crime drama, but a film about listening,

“The Tuba Thieves” features open captioning, meaning dialogue and sound descriptions appear on screen You can’t stop them. This makes the film completely accessible, as the captions are woven into the fabric of the film’s narrative. They were built in harmony with words and images and stories.

When I was editing last year, I finally felt comfortable enough to sit in a theater after being stuck inside during the pandemic. I honestly forgot that movies don’t play with open captions in theaters. I fell asleep within the first three minutes of the movie. I watched the same film on my laptop with subtitles when it was available And was riveted and wide awake. After 20-something years, I finally understand why I sleep through so many movies. I am d/deaf/hard of hearing. I do a lot of tuning when I don’t have access.

All films at Sundance are closed captioned. This means that I will attend screenings and request a device called the CaptiView, which sits in your cup holder and has an adjustable arm (I can tell you from experience, the device will scream very loudly). The arm is topped with a small digital screen that provides captions in sync with the film.

I don’t hesitate to complain about accessibility, but I am very aware of what people who are unable to have that access have to deal with. I take a Captiveview into a theater and feel people watching as I adjust it. I leave screenings with a headache from looking back and forth between the device and the screen.

One in four adults in the United States has a disability. There are countless examples of how people with disabilities benefit in everyday life: elevators, curb cuts, keyboards, electric toothbrushes, etc. I look forward to a time when captions are such an obvious benefit that movies without captions are a thing of cinema’s past, much like silent movies. The case is made too often that we are a huge market to spend money on. Also, I’d like to point out that Gen Z and Millennials are turning on large numbers of captions, so if fear of not selling a film is the reason for not captioning, it’s a huge missed financial opportunity. Economics should not be a factor in access. Access should cause access.

In 2019, I was part of Sundance’s first (and hopefully not last) Accessibility Impact Initiative, where a group of filmmakers with disabilities offered our expertise and advice to Sundance’s non-disabled colleagues who were trying to change and transform the history of the festival and institute. Lack of accessibility. We hope to pave a global path for other festivals. The impact of that initiative is evident in the variety of accessibility implemented today, including an accessibility team that our producers have been meeting with for the past month. They’ve been incredibly supportive, but it’s a big commitment that other teams don’t face. This type of accessibility requires planning, which means we can’t change schedules or make decisions on the fly without the ramifications of inadequate access.

In total, eight films running at Sundance are listed as offering a screening with open captioning. The other two films offer open captioning for every screening throughout the schedule. One is my film, the other is “Is There Anyone Out There?” Directed by Ella Glendenning. We are both disabled. We welcome everyone else to join us. I have a page called How to Caption on my website. Enjoy the instructions and write your own caption poem. We certainly will.

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