Cinemas returning to 'normal' ends a golden age for accessibility

·8-min read
Photo credit: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy - Getty Images

"The year when people couldn't go to the movies is over. Moviegoing has returned in force," professed Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman. This proclamation came as part of a piece arguing that the day-and-date release of Dune on HBO Max in the US is "a mistake".

He justifies this stance by saying a same-day online release will result in lower profits for the studio and will cut down on the film's "event status"; that the entire industry has a vested interest in the success of Dune to gauge the future of movie theatres and, ultimately, that the film just doesn't play as well on a TV set.

Dune director Denis Villeneuve vehemently agrees, recently comparing watching his movie on a TV set to driving a speedboat in a bathtub.

The streaming revolution brought about by the pandemic has been a hot topic over the last 18 months, with the majority of critics and industry commentators agreeing that in a time where movie theatres just weren't an option, it was better than having no new releases. Some feel, however, that now, it's got to go.

Photo credit: Chiabella James - Warner Bros.
Photo credit: Chiabella James - Warner Bros.

It's clear that while the technology to release films straight to streaming was there, the rush into this model revealed some issues, like how to properly compensate talent when a movie's success is not strictly tied to box-office numbers but subscription fees and premium charges for viewers.

With this spotlight on them, it makes sense that studios might prefer to return to the old normal rather than continue building towards a new normal. For example, Disney is seemingly retiring its Premiere Access content stream and will only have cinema premieres for the remainder of 2021.

The most recent nail in the coffin of the day-and-date release, No Time to Die, finally hit screens almost two years after its original date – never attempting to release anywhere but in cinemas.

Yet while studios and cinema chains might be celebrating its exclusive theatrical release, others are mourning the loss of a system that seemed to have cracked the code to accessible movie releases.

Photo credit: Jeff Spicer - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jeff Spicer - Getty Images

"When theatres closed and movies began showing up on VOD, it inspired a lot of debate over things like breaking theatrical windows and if it meant the end of the theatrical experience," Kristen Lopez wrote in IndieWire last year. "For a disabled person, it meant: We can see movies at the same time as our friends."

Whether you have a physical or intellectual disability, are D/deaf, neurodiverse, a wheelchair user, immunocompromised or struggle with your mental health, you know that going to the cinema is not an easy feat.

As someone with ADHD, going to the cinema carries a lot of stress. Being trapped in a chair for two hours or sometimes more, unable to move much or sit in comfortable ways quickly makes me anxious and overwhelmed.

As a way to cope, I have started checking my watch when the lights dim, finding ways to use the light from the screen as the movie plays to read it to find how much longer I have to sit there, growing increasingly impatient and yearning for freedom. Watching a movie in the cinema means hyper-focusing on certain scenes and completely missing others as I zone out and my mind wanders to what I am going to have for dinner when I leave this hellhole.

On the other hand, watching a movie at home means I can sit comfortably, change positions or pause and take a break. It means not getting overwhelmed by outside stimuli and being able to enjoy a movie at my own pace and on my own terms, not have to suffer through the experience but be allowed the freedom to be immersed in the narrative.

Those unaffected by a lack of accessibility might have glanced at a wheelchair seat at a movie theatre and thought that was all movie theatres had, or could, do. But people with disabilities have been dealing with myriad accessibility issues for a long time.

Photo credit: DougSchneiderPhoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: DougSchneiderPhoto - Getty Images

Faulty or non-functioning audio-description equipment for deaf and hearing-impaired viewers, a lack of relaxed screenings for autistic moviegoers, dark rooms with shallow steps, narrow rows of seats, and much more makes a trip to the cinema an unpleasant experience for many.

Thinking this is an issue that only impacts a slim number of people is also wrong. According to the World Health Organisation, the disabled community is 15% of the population, which equates to a potential billion people who have enjoyed movies at home for the last year and a half (though TV, is of course, a luxury not afforded to all), and are now being told by the film industry that they don't matter.

"I really thought this might be a turning point for movies: make films available to people in their own homes and you open them up to a much wider audience," Darren Tilby from Grimsby told us. Tilby has a heart condition that makes it hard for him to walk up stairs and requires him to take medication that means he needs more frequent bathroom breaks.

Photo credit: Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alessandra Benedetti - Corbis - Getty Images

"This system of purely cinematic releases just feels archaic and unfair," he continued. And while on good days he still very much enjoys going to the cinema and likes seeing a movie on the big screen, "I sometimes have 'bad days' due to my condition when I struggle to even leave the house. On days like these (though they are few and far between), I absolutely rely on home entertainment for my movie-going needs."

"I have really come to depend on same-day streaming releases because I am immunocompromised and we're still in the midst of a global pandemic," Johnnie Jae, who lives in Los Angeles, told us. "I am vaccinated but still the risks are too high for me.

"The same-day streaming releases allow me as a movie lover to still take part in the excitement of a movie release. It allows me to be able to watch it along with everyone else, which means I'm less likely to have it ruined by having to wait weeks and months to see it and of course saves me from spoilers from folks who got to see it right away."

Photo credit: Disney
Photo credit: Disney

Jae also told us that since cinemas have reopened, they have attended a screening once, but the unpredictability of the theatre environment made it "a very uncomfortable experience". Despite their own efforts to keep themselves shielded, nothing could control other viewers' behaviours, which is just another invisible barrier for many like Jae.

"It's been a game-changer to be able to watch from the comfort of my own home, the way I'd like to watch a movie," is how Sravya Attalury, who is based in London, described her experience. "I wouldn't mind paying a little bit more to be able to watch in the comfort of my own home.

"Especially after the last two years, I feel way too anxious and uncomfortable to be in a room with so many people, I'd always choose the safer option if possible."

Attalury, who has ADHD and social anxiety, would still return to the cinema to enjoy a movie with her friends or if she wanted to experience the picture or audio quality of the theatre.

However, she adds: "I still think having the safety and comfort of my home, the choice of when I want to watch and when I want to pause and replay, still takes priority for me [rather] than the in-person experience."

Though the prevalence of day-and-date releases has brought this conversation to the forefront, it has been taking place among the disabled community for a very long time. "I cringe every time some (rich) actor or director disparages streaming releases, mostly because my dad, who is disabled and lives in a nursing home, is only able to watch movies if they stream. It's been so great for him," wrote Larissa.

"While I completely understand the business side of movie production companies preferring to put new releases exclusively in theatres, it REALLY sucks for disabled people like myself. I can't sit still or upright for 30 min, forget an hour," complained Jessie.

Photo credit: Amazon Prime
Photo credit: Amazon Prime

Some even find it ironic that as Disney and the MCU get ready to debut their first deaf superhero with Eternals, there is no confirmation the film will be "accessible to most disabled and deaf people".

So what's the solution? Well, for starters, studios should realise that streaming is not going anywhere, despite Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins saying that streamer movies look "fake" (whatever that's supposed to mean).

"There's no shame in wanting to watch the latest blockbuster from the comfort of your own home. Accessibility shouldn't be seen as diluting the cinematic experience; it's a wonderful thing that opens the world of cinema up to more people. And that should be celebrated, not shunned," says Darren.

As for what cinemas can do to change, Darren's list is actually pretty concise: "More wheelchair access and spaces, regular subtitled screenings and the return of an intermission for movies of two hours or more." Ultimately, as cinemas are starting to fill up again, studios need to understand that by offering their movies on streaming platforms they are not losing viewers; movies have a special place in everyone's heart.

Even those who struggle to go, still try and make an effort for the right movie and for the right people because the experience has the potential to be superior and special. What day-and-date releases do offer studios though is a wider audience and a chance to show the movie to people who they previously would have lost.

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