Juneau theater shows its first open-captioned film

'Seabiscuit' to play with captions for the deaf and hard of hearing

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2003

Diagnosed as deaf when she was 2, Pam Mueller-Guy knows what it's like to watch a movie, not hear any words and ask someone else to explain the action.

"I remember doing that to my brothers and sisters when I was growing up, and they didn't want to miss part of the movie," said Mueller-Guy, the deaf services coordinator at SAIL. "So I would go someplace else instead of going to the movies."

That's a common problem for the deaf and hard of hearing, and it's why many wait months for a film to come out on DVD, with subtitles, instead of attending a first-run release at the theater.

There is a solution. Open-captioned films include floating dialogue and visual icons - like subtitles but different - to help the hearing impaired follow the story.

Glacier Cinemas will screen an open-captioned print of "Seabiscuit" at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 18 and 19. Theaters in Anchorage and Fairbanks have presented open-captioned films for the last two years, but this is the first time it's been attempted in Juneau with a newly released film.

"We're excited to get this," Mueller-Guy said. "It's very important for us to have access to the same things as the hearing world. I'm hoping to have this every month."

Whether open-captioned films return every month depends on the turnout this weekend. Gross Alaska Inc., the owner of Glacier Cinemas and downtown's 20th Century Twin, acquired "Seabiscuit" from InSight Cinema, a California-based distributor of open-captioned films. InSight charges theaters two-thirds of a film's gross profits. Distributors normally charge as little as one-third of the gross or up to 50 percent for a blockbuster.

"We're a pretty small town, and it costs us to do this, so we have to make sure that we can break even on the deal," said Gross Alaska manager Eric Forst. "We'd like to do more of them. We think there's definitely a market out there in this town."

There's certainly been a movement. Mueller-Guy said she collected almost 200 signatures from the deaf and disabled community and mailed a petition to InSight six months ago. InSight booker Steve Ellis received the signatures and got in touch with Forst.

Open-captioning is normally restricted to films that open in many theaters nationwide or movies with limited releases - such as "Big Fat Greek Wedding" - that fare well after the first weekend.

InSight distributes approximately 50 open-captioned films a year to about 250 cities, Ellis said. The company had less than 200 cities one year ago and should have more than 300 a year from now, he said.

"If we wanted to add 50 cities tomorrow, we could do that easily," Ellis said. "But we'd rather have a groundswell of interest, like in Juneau, from various groups that want to see our movies."

Open-captioning is different from subtitles or television letterboxes. The words float on the screen next to the person who's talking, so if one of the performers has their back turned, the audience will still know who's talking. Also, there are visual icons. A vibrating telephone will ring to signify a phone call. A car horn will appear if a vehicle is honking off screen.

Fairbanks shows open-captioned films at the Regal Goldstream and Goldstream Cinemas. Anchorage screens at the Dimond Center and the Bear Tooth Theaterpub.

The Bear Tooth, a 400-capacity house, shows second-run releases, independent films and foreign-language movies and serves beer, wine and a full menu. The theater has been showing open-captioned films one to four times a month, depending on movie availability, as part of its Tuesday night programming.

"On an average night, it's usually over half full of people," said Rand Thornsley, director of film programming and special events coordinator at the Bear Tooth. "I couldn't tell you who's deaf or hard of hearing, but we get a lot of regulars. They rely on it, and they've gotten used to coming as the night continues to build."

The Bear Tooth plans to screen "Tomb Raider 2" next week, scheduled "Johnny English" this week, and showed "Terminator 3," "Hulk," "Finding Nemo" and "Matrix Reloaded" last month.

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