Case Study: Descriptive Subtitles with Film Forres & Cinema Nairn

Community cinemas Film Forres and Cinema Nairn describe their experience of introducing descriptive subtitles to their screenings.

What are descriptive subtitles?

In a blog for the Independent Cinema Office, Matchbox Cine’s Access Consultant Charlie Little defines descriptive subtitles and outlines how they can create a more equal experience for audiences:

“When a film has subtitles, this means that the on-screen text is just a translation of dialogue. A film featuring international languages would have subtitles, providing a translation for audiences who don’t understand the featured language(s).

Descriptive subtitles, sometimes referred to as SDH (subtitles for Deaf and hard-of-hearing), HoH (hard-of-hearing), and captions, transcribe dialogue (e.g. for English speaking audiences, both English and any other languages) and relevant aspects of the soundtrack, including music and sound effects, attempting to give Deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers an equal experience to those who are able to watch films without descriptive subtitles.

Descriptive subtitles would include speech identifiers and descriptive elements such as [door slamming] and [kettle whistling]. There are complexities, nuances, and a technical, judgement-based process when it comes to the production of descriptive subtitles, but that’s the difference between subtitles and descriptive subtitles in a nutshell.”

Film Forres

Film Forres is a community group which provides film activities for the Forres area. They host screenings for a range of age groups, and provide film equipment to other groups for use in their screenings and performances. Development Manager, Ruth Whitfield, shared their experience introducing descriptive subtitles to their screenings:

Responding to the needs of audience members

Over a period of about 12 months, we’d had many enquiries, complaints and requests from some of our audience to show descriptive subtitles. Many had hearing difficulties and approximately 15% of our audience do not have English as their first language. Also, the size of the main hall at Forres Town Hall – an old Victorian building – is very large with a balcony.

Surveying audiences

About 12 months ago at one of our films we put a flip chart in the foyer to ask our audience (c100) whether they:

  1. Would like descriptive subtitles;
  2. Didn’t care or;
  3. Definitely didn’t want them

The result was that the majority (65%) asked for descriptive subtitles, 20% didn’t mind either way and 15% definitely didn’t want them. We kept procrastinating until about four months later we decided to trial them at one of our monthly adult films as we kept being asked and some people just didn’t turn up because the sound was so indistinct. We made it clear on all our marketing, advertising, social media and newsletters that we were using the following month’s film as an experiment.

Positive response

We didn’t receive any adverse criticism and most people were relieved to be able to understand the dialogue especially for American films. Those who we’d lost, returned!

It’s been a huge success. We wouldn’t go back now. I was one of those who didn’t mind either way but now realise that I was straining to hear some of the dialogue especially on American films. Last month, we showed Green Book which included a variety of music. If it hadn’t been for the descriptive subtitles, I would not have appreciated the titles or lyrics and it also showed the vocalist/artist.

Cinema Nairn

Cinema Nairn is a community cinema in Nairn, on the Moray Firth. Their aim is to be as inclusive as possible, including for cinema goers with a hearing impairment. They show an eclectic mix of classic and contemporary films, alongside some hidden gems. Séamus McArdle told us about their journey to introduce descriptive subtitles to improve access for their audiences.

Introducing descriptive subtitles to improve accessibility

We introduced subtitles for the hard of hearing at the end of the 2022 season of films. We were on edge about how they would be received by our regular audiences, as well as how new comers would respond to them.

There are two fundamental reasons why we wanted to introduce them:

The clarity of dialogue in films can be very poor, often overwhelmed by the general cinematic soundscape, but also impaired by the acoustic quality of the sound system and the auditorium. The committee members of Cinema Nairn were always on edge when showing a film, hoping that everyone can hear the dialogue clearly.

The important reason is that we endeavour to be a diverse and inclusive cinema, whether that be in the range of films that we show or in the accessibility of our screenings.

So using subtitles was always something we wanted to try. In the past there was a reluctance from some of the committee members to the idea, offering the alternative that aired a film twice, once with and once without. This would have been too expensive, and likely would have only attracted those who are hard of hearing to the subtitled showing. We decided that this was not very inclusive, or affordable.

Communicating change to audiences

We did a very quick ‘hands-up’ question during our introduction for the films early in the trial to see if people objected. There were some people who did not want to have subtitles, but it was mainly a response of ‘it doesn’t matter one way or the other’. We announced a trial of the use of subtitles on our website, but we do not state the fact in our emails.

Overall impact

The initial reaction was mainly neutral, but some did say the subtitles enhanced their enjoyment of the film as they were able to follow the dialogue, whilst others said it was slightly off-putting, but would put-up with them!

Our attendances have increased, but this could be because of people returning after Covid. We have had a few comments from people saying they are put off from coming back because of the subtitles. It’s impossible to know the full scale of this because if they don’t come back we can’t ask them! We have had people approach us to say how useful the subtitles are and thank us for using them. Some of these people say that they use subtitles at home whilst watching TV.

Descriptive subtitles versus dialogue subtitles

The main issue people seem to have is the descriptive subtitles rather than the dialogue subtitles. It is noticeable that people don’t mind subtitles when we show films not in the English language. These films are very popular. However, when we show films not in the English language we only use the dialogue subtitles. We may need to reconsider this aspect too, particularly as one of the reasons we are using subtitles is to encourage people with hearing impairments to feel included in our community cinema.

We are planning a survey of our audience in the next few weeks as we come to the end of the first full year of using subtitles. We hope it reveals that people have found them at worst, unobtrusive, and at best, enlightening!

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