Deaf-Friendly Showcase: Ark Lodge Cinemas’ Open-Captioning Breakthrough

Posted by: Staff Writer on Jan. 23, 2013

Once upon a time not too long ago, a deaf film buff’s quest to find open captioning options at the movie theaters felt strikingly like an arduous quest across Middle-earth to reclaim a mountain from an evil, fiery dragon. If the script seems familiar, that’s because you’ve just seen the “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” via open captioning at a new local deaf-friendly business in Seattle: Ark Lodge Cinemas on Rainier Avenue.

Never mind that it’s a historic 90-year-old building: This is where the past and the future happily co-mingle.

In the 21st Century, you can choose between digital vs. film, 2D vs 3D, IMAX vs. non-IMAX, and 24 fps vs. 48 fps ... but open-captioned showings are only available in very limited time slots." At Ark Lodge Cinemas, you can consistently choose open captioning instead of “I’ll just wait for subtitled DVD to come out.”

The man orchestrating the unlikely marriage of old (film projectors) and new (captioning technology) is new cinema owner David McRae.

By the time he signed the new building lease, 500 feet of its copper pipes were gutted by a squatter, old non-digital projectors were still set to 35mm film print, and there was nary a fire safety system (prior to Jan. 3, Fire Watch consisted of blaring a bull horn and flashing a flashlight at the screen). Contractors and pipe-fitters were knee-deep in renovations, paint, and pipes. Yet in the hectic haze of remodeling, the Ark Lodge Cinema quickly confronted a technological learning curve: Make open captioning available so that over 30 deaf, hard-of-hearing people and their peers could enjoy the December 18 premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The newly deaf-friendly venue has received praise and buzz within the Deaf Community. “It was so wonderful to see such an epic film on the large screen with clear captions,” wrote deaf actor Howie Seago in an email to Ark Lodge Cinemas the next day, also praising its personable ambience and nearby eateries.

A community theater, for the Deaf community

The man who set the accessibility into motion is Bruce Visser, a deaf-blind Columbia City local who emailed McRae in December to request open captioning for the small, intimate community theater.  After reading a Citizens’ Wiki brief about Ark Lodge Cinemas’ special event permit to show The Hobbit, Visser sprang into action:

“I decided to email ALC for two reasons: To welcome them back to the community, and to see if they will have an Open Captioned (OC) screening,” said Visser. “I explained in the email that I know from experience that many Deaf people would appreciate OC screenings instead of the closed captioned (CC) version.”              

McRae responded immediately, offering to make OC possible. In a following thread that included then-manager Sarina Hart, the three discussed the logistics of making this happen.

“They said they were not ready nor equipped to provide CC screenings,” recalled Visser. “I said that there’s no need to wait for any equipment if OC is already available.”

Such is the uncomplicated beauty of Open Captioning technology, McRae soon found out.

First, a little history lesson: The former Columbia City Cinemas ran a 35mm film-only multiplex from 2004 up until its 2011 bankruptcy. At the time, Rear Window Captioning was available for film presentations. But the only way to show an Open Caption presentation would be to rent an additional 35mm print with subtitles. This is problematic at film-only theaters, explained McRae, because it was difficult to keep more than two prints on any film transport system.

Talk about kismet: By the time Visser’s email hit his inbox, McRae was already in the process of upgrading the ALC’s projectors into all-digital systems.

Despite a career in 35mm print film (his parents owned a theater in the 70s) that spans more than two decades, he embraces the future of film – and accessibility. 

Investing in Accessibility, Community

The cinema’s resurrection required big outlays to retrofit its infrastructure. That included $80,000 for sprinklers, as well as another $15,000 to replace 500+ ft. of copper wires. It doesn’t end there: McRae recently put in an order in to purchase a close captioned as well as descriptive video system for all 3 screens. It is estimated to arrive by the end of January.

The importance of such investments is not lost on Emily Coleman, the Ark Lodge Cinema’s new manager, “My mother has degenerative hearing loss, and I know how difficult going to the movies is for her.”

The community-oriented cinema is here to reply to your emails, make popcorn with real butter, host Stroller Park Wednesdays (free to children under age 2). They even welcome suggestions about which drinks to serve: Their “Pepsi or Coke?” Facebook status generated 64 comments from caffeine-thirsty locals.

Their latest move - for each new film, McRae plans on showing OC screenings the first Tuesday after its premiere. Last Tuesday, ALC showed an OC screening for spy thriller Zero Dark Thirty.

The Mysterious Black Box with White Words: Open-Captioning Technology

Look no further than your living room, for the miracle of captioning. Whether their hearing owners know it or not, all television sets are now manufactured with a CC-reader in them. That’s because closed captioning has been required by law since the 1993.

Alas, this is not the case with movie theaters. Over the past couple decades, theaters have been the subject of many technological experiments geared towards deaf viewers, including: Rear-Window Captioning, Sony Access Entertainment Glasses, and of course Open Captioning.

“The Sony glasses, with the captions on the lens, are absolutely fantastic,” said Rob Roth, a deaf local who utilizes a variety of technologies at various theaters. “Given that OC is limited in time slots (and bizarre time slots as well), I like the Sony system as I can go to any movie, anytime so long as it's a Regal theater.”

“Open-captioning or glasses?” debate is as lively as “Pepsi or Coke?”

To imagine being in a deaf or hard of hearing patron’s shoes, McRae tried different captioning devices and came to a realization: “I find that they are not the best choice for a deaf or hearing-impaired person who is not comfortable having to read text via the glasses HUD system. This is why I will continue to offer hosting Open Caption Nights so that the Deaf film-going members of our neighborhood can have a fun time with their friends without having to deal with the special viewing glasses/headsets.”

“Northgate provides captions with (Sony Entertainment Access) glasses, but I think everyone will agree with me that OC is the best way to go,” said Ryder Patton, a deaf Seattle local. Seago, a movie buff, is in agreement: “’The Hobbit’ in OC was pure joy! Four attempts with glasses = four disappointments,” he summed up his prior experiences. 

Though we can debate for hours about the best captioning technology, one thing most deaf/HH people can agree on is the need for a ongoing publicity to inform deaf locals of OC screenings. For consistent outreach, Roth suggests active marketing (i.e. Deaf Spotlight and Deaf Northwest) in addition to passive marketing (Captionfish, Fandango). “The latter depends on people going to their website, the former reaches out to people who many otherwise not know something exists,” he said.

Let’s start marking off some spots on our calendars for Tuesday OC showings at this local deaf-friendly gem!


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