Sound Effects

Leta McKenzie likes to go the movies, but only if she can read the film. McKenzie, who is profoundly deaf and unable to understand movie-screen conversation, relies on open-caption films to enjoy the big-screen experience.

Open-caption films insert text across the bottom of the screen to convey dialogue as well as the subtle sonic environment of a movie--the foreshadowing creaks of footsteps in the hallway or the mysterious doorbell in the background. Imagine a Jaws attack without the dunt dunt dunt dunt or a Norman Bates knifing without the spiraling shrieks of terror. The first open-caption film was The Big Chill in 1982, but the films are only now receiving wider distribution.

"This is a marvelous step forward in accommodation for us," McKenzie writes in an e-mail to Westword. But then she asks, "How about showing these films at a time we might actually be able to go?"

McKenzie and others are concerned that the screening times for the rare but much-appreciated films are too few and far between. For instance, when the Mann Theaters recently screened the Robin Williams family comedy Patch Adams for a two-day run--Wednesday and Thursday --the film played only at 1 p.m.

"Do these people think that hearing-impaired people don't have jobs?" asks McKenzie, whose family had to miss out on the Patch Adams engagement.

McKenzie notes that when her husband contacted Mann Theaters to request more showtimes, a manager said the times are dictated by the studios. When Westword called the theater, the district manager referred all queries to a corporate spokesperson in California, who did not return messages.

Patricia Johnson, director of operations for distributor Tripod Caption Films, says the power of deciding on showtimes for open-caption films is often in the hands of theater management. She says her company recommends showtimes of 4 and 7 p.m. "That way, it gives everyone a chance to see the films," Johnson says. "In the afternoon people can go for cheaper, and in the evening, people can go for an entertainment activity. Four and seven work really well." She also says advertising for the screenings needs to go beyond the local newspapers; it needs to get into the deaf community to secure high turnout.

Johnson says the open-caption films have longer runs and play more often in markets where there are the highest concentrations of deaf people, such as New York, Houston, Philadelphia and Sacramento. These markets will continue to enjoy weekend screenings, Johnson says, while cities such as Denver will get the weekday showings.

Johnson says audience complaints of limited availability have not gone without notice. But, she adds, her company and its audiences need to be realistic when asking theater owners to devote screen time to the open-caption market. "Right now there are a lot of people working to judge the demand for the films. We can not demand what times and how often they play the features. The only thing we can do is request," she says.

And the demand does seem to be growing. In 1992, Tripod Caption Films distributed two films per year; in 1999, the company will move fifty films through 200 different cities.

For McKenzie, that's a welcome twist of plot. "I think it is simply wonderful that there is a company meeting the needs of the hearing-impaired by providing open-caption films," she writes. "It is important to me that the theaters providing this be supported so that the concept of open-caption films will grow."

--Justin Berton

Upcoming open-caption movies: Payback, April 7-8 at the UA Pavilions in Denver, 303-454-9032; Saving Private Ryan, April 9-11 at the Century in Aurora, 303-283-FILM; October Sky, April 14 at the Mann in Aurora, 303-766-3100. Call theater for showtimes.

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Justin Berton

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