Show Me the Subtitles!

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Watching the highlights of the Oscar ceremony last night reminded me of how much I love watching a good film. It was great to see ’12 Years A Slave’ win best picture. I watched a captioned screening of this film recently at the cinema and I thought it was one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

For as long as I can remember I have loved going to the cinema. It has always been an enjoyable, sociable experience for me. I used to go regularly to the cinema with my wife and it was something we both really loved doing together.

But going to the cinema has become really difficult for me since I recently became deafened. I am now profoundly deaf so I rely on watching subtitled films because I can no longer hear the dialogue. So if a particular film being shown is not subtitled I simply cannot watch it. I can see the actors moving their lips but I have no idea what they are saying.

Imagine what it would be like if someone turned the sound off if you are hearing. That is what it feels like for me and other deaf people when there are no subtitles.

Unfortunately, the majority of films shown in UK cinemas are not subtitled. Less than 1% of current new film releases are subtitled in English. Most subtitled films are only shown once or twice a week in most cinemas – usually once on a weekday during the day when a lot of deaf people are at work, and sometimes on a Sunday morning.

It is impossible for a deaf person to go to the cinema on the spur of the moment, like everyone else. Why do we not have more choice? The cinemas say that they don’t show more subtitled films because there is little demand for them. They say that most of their customers are hearing and they don’t require subtitled films. Some of them actually complain that subtitles distract them from their enjoyment of the film, which is why they don’t show them at peak times.

In my experience those hearing people who complain are in the minority. In fact, if there are any complaints, the cinemas should find out why people are complaining. It could be because they have not advertised their subtitled screenings very well beforehand or informed customers that a particular film was going to be subtitled. I think that many people are still not aware of how essential they are to deaf people.

There is clearly a need to inform hearing customers about the importance of subtitled films. Until recently, cinemas used to show a short clip before the main feature explaining the importance of subtitled films to deaf and hard of hearing people. Why don’t cinemas bring this back?

Many deaf and hard of hearing people have to travel long distances to see a subtitled film as they are often not shown at their local multiplex, even in London. We have to check via a website called http://www.yourlocalcinema.com to see the limited listings for the week ahead.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been to the cinema three times at different cinemas across London. Unfortunately, on the first two occasions I wasn’t actually able to watch the film. I ended up having to leave shortly after the film started due to subtitling failures.

On the first occasion, when I went to see ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ at a Cineworld cinema in Central London, only every other line of the subtitles was visible on the screen, so I couldn’t follow enough of the dialogue to watch it. The cinema manager explained to me that this was due to human error and incorrect scaling of the film for the size of the projection screen.

The second time, at my local Odeon cinema in South Woodford on a Sunday, there were no subtitles on the film at all, despite the fact that it was advertised on their website, posters and flyers as ‘Subtitled Sunday’. The cinema manager told me that the distributor had sent the wrong, un-subtitled film to the cinema in error, but nobody had noticed it before they screened it.

On both occasions, I complained to the cinema manager, who apologised, gave me a refund and complimentary vouchers to see a future film. But I left feeling upset and frustrated, since it wouldn’t be easy for me to go and watch the same film again and both cinema trips had been ruined.

Since then, I have discovered from my deaf friends on social media that cinema subtitling failures are much more common than I realised. It happens regularly in cinemas across the country.  In fact, it has happened to nearly every deaf cinema-goer I know.

Some deaf people have told me that they now have a drawer-full of complimentary vouchers from the cinemas. Others have said that even when the films are advertised as subtitled, their local cinema does not switch the subtitles on unless a customer complains about it as they assume there are no deaf customers there. It seems that many UK cinema chains do not take access issues seriously enough.

Sadly, this problem has been known about for a long time. Charlie Swinbourne reported it in ‘The Guardian’ in 2011 and it seems like since then nothing has changed. The trust that many deaf cinema-goers had in watching films at the cinema has gone. Many of them don’t go anymore because they’re worried the subtitles won’t work.

We sit in the dark for half an hour beforehand watching un-subtitled trailers and adverts we cannot follow, praying that the film we have paid to see will be subtitled as advertised. But it feels like a lottery and we can never be sure until we see the first actor open his or her mouth on the big screen and the captions appear without a problem. Until then, we wait with nervous trepidation.

Going to the cinema is not a cheap night out either, so why should it be acceptable for deaf and hard of hearing people to experience so many subtitling failures and poor excuses from the cinemas for their lack of accessibility to us?

Yet someone from Yourlocalcinema.com told me that reported subtitling failures are very rare. I believe that the scale of the problem is massively underestimated because many deaf and hard of hearing people just don’t report it. Often they have communication problems explaining it to the manager and don’t want to complain, as it is too stressful for them. We simply keep accepting the vouchers from the cinema and the problem goes unreported.

When I was complaining about the subtitling failure to the cinema manager of Cineworld recently I saw an elderly hard-of-hearing woman there with her granddaughter. The elderly lady was clearly upset but she was too embarrassed to speak to the manager about it. Her granddaughter had to do it on her behalf. But this subtitling failure had ruined their cinema trip together.

But not every cinema has such a poor track record. Some of them have been excellent. The Curzon Cinema in Soho and the Vue Cinema in Piccadilly, London, for instance, have both been brilliant, with very helpful staff and great access. The London Subtitling Group meets regularly at the Curzon Cinema in Soho to watch subtitled films together in a friendly, relaxed environment. I wish there were more cinemas like this, which champion great access and inclusion for all their customers.

Along with other deaf and hard of hearing cinema fans, I just want to be able to watch my choice of film at the cinema when I want, like everyone else. I don’t want to have it decided for me by people who don’t know what I want to watch and when I want to watch it.

Although this seems an impossible goal at the moment, a lot more could be done to improve access to the cinema for deaf and hard of hearing people if the provision and quality of subtitled films was taken more seriously by more of the cinema chains across the UK. We need to engage with them more to campaign for better access and raise awareness of our needs.

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7 thoughts on “Show Me the Subtitles!

  1. I AGREE! Deaf and hard of hearing people aren’t asking for some huge favor here! Show Subtitles!!!!!!! Is that so much to ask, really? Provide the service that deaf and hard of hearing people have a right to receive for the money they are paying.

  2. Pingback: Digital Cinema is Still Failing Deaf Patrons - Celluloid Junkie

    • Thanks for your comments and for writing that article. It is very interesting and I will share it widely on social media. The six action points for improvement are exactly what’s needed. Please message me via Twitter @RichardTurner and we’ll continue the dialogue on this important issue.

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