Bay Space Historic Film Theaters Transfer In direction of Larger Accessibility

Together with Nicole Newnham, LeBrecht wrote, directed and co-produced the Oscar-nominated film Crip Camp, which tells the story of a group of disabled youth – including LeBrecht – whose unforgettable experiences at a summer camp in the early 1970s led to a rise in disability rights activism across the country.

LeBrecht says his movie theater experience has steadily improved since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. But he sees compliance with the ADA as “floor, not ceiling”.

This poses a challenge for historical Theaters built decades before the ADA codes were introduced. Many are in constant need of other more urgent repairs, and as small local businesses, traditionally they have been held less responsible for complying with accessibility laws. LeBrecht says.

“Some really haven’t done much, saying the costs are so high that they are not legally required,” says LeBrecht. Another common argument from historical theaters is that improving accessibility would destroy their historical architecture.

Historic theaters take it one step further

But things are changing. More and more owners and managers of historic theaters are realizing the value of making their spaces more integrative and finding the means to pursue them.

“There’s a huge audience out there wanting to see the movies,” said Lex Sloan, executive director of Roxie, who used the bulk of a $ 150,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to make the 108- Year olds to improve the venue. “And this is how we make sure that we have what you need to feel comfortable here.”

Lex Sloan, General Manager of Roxie, demonstrates the new ADA door. (Chloe Veltman / KQED)

“We believe this is a kind of corporate social responsibility and needs to be achieved wherever possible,” said Allen Michaan, owner and operator of the 95-year-old Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. Michaan says he has continuously used business profits over the years to make upgrades, such as more wheelchair seats in prime locations.

Meanwhile, Marin County’s Lark Theater, which opened in 1940, is making its existing ADA bathrooms and lobby concession counters more wheelchair-friendly with funds from a capital campaign and a private donor. “It is very important that we do this,” says Ellie Mednick, general manager of the Lark. “We have had people with disabilities come to our theater for a long time and have always wondered how we can improve.” The theater started renovations a few months ago and is slated to reopen in October.

Some residue

However, some historic theaters in the Bay Area are lagging behind – notably the Castro Theater in San Francisco, which was built in 1922.

“All kinds of people with disabilities have said, ‘Look, we don’t have access to half the theater. It’s not available to us,'” says Catherine Kudlick, who teaches the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University runs the Superfest, touted as “the longest running film festival in the world”.

Kudlick is one of several people interviewed for this story who wants the famous San Francisco Film Palace to make a variety of accessibility improvements, including providing more desirable seating for wheelchair users, implementing audio description and subtitling technology for those with hearing – or visually impaired, and to make the stage and the mezzanine accessible to people who cannot climb stairs.

“If there is a will, there is a way,” says Kudlick. “The problem is, you have to get people to the point where they have to be ready.”

The Castro Theater at night.  The theater has been closed since March due to corona restrictions.The Castro Theater. (Castro Theater / Facebook)

“The Castro is a wonderful theater, the absolute heart of our cinematic community, and I really appreciate it,” says filmmaker LeBrecht. “But it’s a terrible place for me to see a movie.”

Work towards improvements

LeBrecht and Kudlick are part of a Disability Advisory Board established three years ago by SFFILM that hosts many screenings of the San Francisco International Film Festival and other events at the Castro throughout the year, including other local venues. Executive Board initiatives funded by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation include improving accessibility in historic cinemas, helping filmmakers with disabilities, and improving access to subtitles and audio descriptions for both digital and in-person film events.

LeBrecht says his group is helping SFFILM work with its partner institutions, including Castro, to address accessibility issues.

The Castro’s general manager Steve Nasser says he is determined to address their concerns, although at this point he is still vague about details and a timetable.

“You know, we’re looking at a lot of options, I’d say,” says Nasser. “Our architects and historical consultants met with the city.”

The audio description challenge

Even theaters that are barrier-free cannot always offer the optimal experience for disabled customers.

For example, the Roxie has a supply of subtitling and audio description devices. Small closed caption boxes for people with hearing problems fit into seat cup holders with text captions displayed on the boxes’ screens. The audio description for visually impaired guests is provided via headphones. A voice describes what is happening on the big screen.

For visually and hearing-impaired film visitors, however, these devices are usually only useful if the films shown have subtitles and audio descriptions. And the preparation of a film signature and audio description is the responsibility of the filmmaker or film distributor. (Sloan adds that audio headsets have a setting that increases the volume of the basic audio track of any movie, so this can help some people with hearing problems even if the movie itself doesn’t have an audio description. But that’s not much help to people who cannot see very well.)

An audio description headset. (Lex Sloan)

The Roxie screening of the indie documentary Kid Candidate did not come with audio description. So film buff and Roxie member Chan had to sit in the front row to catch the onscreen action and Q&A with the director after the show.

“Big studio films have the money to offer this type of service,” says Chan. “Independent films and foreign films generally don’t have that available.”

Subtitling is now a legal requirement and can be done inexpensively or even free of charge using automated speech-to-text technology. So, subtitled movies are pretty ubiquitous these days. Movies with audio description are much less common.

The Visually Impaired Kudlick of the Longmore Institute says the audio description is more practical and subjective. “Somebody has to decide what to describe, so it’s more complex and expensive to make. It’s also more niche and in its infancy as a service, so a lot of people don’t know about it.”

According to data emailed to KQED by the Rainin Foundation, audio description costs $ 20-30 per minute. Subtitling costs around $ 4 per minute.

But Kudlick’s colleague, Emily Beitiks, deputy director of the Longmore Institute, says indie filmmakers shouldn’t be drained of audio description because of the size of the budget. She says more and more of them are starting to include the service as part of the basic package with their films. “They write it in grants or get reduced costs from access providers who want to get those titles with access,” says Beitiks.

Accessibility for everyone

Filmmaker LeBrecht says the film industry is beginning to understand that accessibility isn’t just about meeting the needs of a niche group or meeting legal requirements.

Finally there is this shift in support and appreciation for the disabled community that we have been fighting for for years, ”he says.

LeBrecht points out that the mere act of aging goes hand in hand with accessibility requirements.

“If you are lucky enough to live long enough, you will start to experience things with your body that make it difficult for you to access the cinema or simply to society in general without any accommodation,” says LeBrecht.

The more cinemas prioritize accessibility, the more cinema-goers they can reach.

“There’s an audience out there!” says LeBrecht. “You are spending money in your theater!”

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