Federico Spoletti • Managing director, Sub-Ti Ltd
"Accessible cinema caters for the needs of everybody"
by Camillo De Marco
- At Rome’s MIA, the managing director of international subtitling company Sub-Ti spoke about improving access to cinema for people with sensory disabilities
More than 70 million people in Europe are deaf or hearing-impaired. An event hosted by the MIA Market in Rome explained how a film can be made accessible, what rights users have in terms of regulations, rules and laws, and the impact of audiovisual accessibility on the market.
Sub-Ti is an international subtitling company originally founded in London in 2002 by Federico Spoletti. It specialises in film-festival subtitling and access services for television, and has representatives in Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Milan, Paris, Rome, Montreal and New York. On 19 October, at the event organised by Sub-Ti, Cineuropa got the chance to chat to Spoletti.
Cineuropa: What is the potential audience with sensory disabilities in European cinemas?
Federico Spoletti: In the world, one in six people is affected by some form of sensory disability, which means more than one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population. There are 70 million people with hearing impairment across Europe. The average age of the population is growing, young people are at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening habits, so these numbers are going to increase.
Besides individuals who are recognised as blind or deaf, access services in European cinemas have great potential for larger audiences: subtitles for the deaf are very useful for language learners and foreigners, just to give one example. Providing access services in cinemas also means fostering inclusion: if a blind patron knows he or she can go to the cinema and fully enjoy the film, he or she will go with family or friends, for inclusive entertainment.
Therefore, there is a huge potential market. Also, new technologies, like for example “second-screen applications” (apps for smartphones and tablets), make accessible content easy to achieve, without any special equipment needing to be set up in theatres: you can download subtitles or audio descriptions, and then the app synchronises that additional content with the audio of the film in the cinema.
In many European countries, accessibility is still seen according to a sort of medical or social approach, but these services definitely also have a market potential; they are services catering for the needs of people with different abilities, and most of us might need those services at some point in our lives (note that in countries with a life expectancy of 70 years, people on average spend 11% of their life with sensory disabilities).
What is an “accessible cinema” experience?
“Accessible cinema” is an expression used to encompass all of the possible strategies used to make sure the film can be enjoyed by all. From translations into many languages (for dubbing or subtitling) to audio description for the blind (and audio subtitling for the blind) and subtitles for the deaf, accessible cinema caters for the needs of everybody.
Strictly speaking, a film is accessible when SDH (subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired, also called captions in the United States) and AD (audio description) for the blind and visually impaired are available. AST (audio subtitles) are also required to let visually impaired audiences follow a film in the original language (if they can’t read the subtitles).
SDH (captions) are intralingual subtitles with additional information to enable character identification, noises, music and so on (the information a deaf person could not receive). AD refers to an additional narration track for blind and visually impaired consumers of visual media. During gaps in the dialogue, an additional voice provides a description of visual elements such as scenes, settings, actions and costumes.
What is Sub-Ti doing to make films accessible?
Sub-Ti has been actively promoting accessible cinema and its inclusive value for over seven years, mainly at international film festivals and to the film industry. Five years ago, we founded a sister company dedicated exclusively to the provision of access services, named Sub-Ti Access. We sponsored a number of screenings and initiatives, within film festivals but also with associations for the sensory-impaired. We also supported research and training, both financially and by providing direct training to young, specialised operators.
We have been in a study group for ITU (the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies) in order to identify best practices. We have developed a specific app for synchronising accessible content in cinemas, and we have been trying to raise awareness within the film industry about access services and the rights of the users, also providing accessible versions of a number of films to distributors free of charge.
What emerged from the panel at the MIA?
The conference brought together a great number of international experts and agents involved in the provision of accessibility. The messages that can be drawn from the conference are, among others, that more awareness-raising activities need to be put in place, so as to draw the attention of the films’ creators, from directors to producers, not forgetting distributors (note that three films have been made accessible at the Rome Film Fest; we invited their directors to the conference, but none of them showed up…).
Another lesson to be learned concerns the most prominent agents in the dissemination and expansion of access services, some of them still completely unaware of the potential of access services. In other territories, that market potential has been understood. For example, in the UK, the legislation requires 10% of TV programmes to be audio-described, but there are some commercial television stations providing 35% or 40% because in the fight to get bigger audiences, they have understood that this helps them to gain some of the market share.
The basics of Accessible Filmmaking were also discussed. This theory has been developed by Pablo Romero Fresco of the University of Roehampton in London, and Sub-Ti supports this idea very strongly: if you look at many of the top-grossing award-winning films of the last 15 years, you’ll see that 60% of their revenue is made through “translation” (accessibility and linguistic accessibility), but only 0.1% to 1% of the film budget is spent on translation and accessibility. This results in very poor conditions for translators and translation companies, which also means that the vision of the movie is likely to be altered when translated or made accessible, which in some cases represents the biggest audience. Some filmmakers like to supervise every aspect of their film, but for some reason they neglect this step, which means that their movies may look the same to all audiences, but in reality the film is saying something different to different audiences.
Accessible Filmmaking argues that translation and accessibility should be an integral part of the production process, and not something relegated to the distribution process. This would be good for producers (there is funding out there for making films accessible or expanding cinema to new audiences and so on) and especially for directors – in this way, they guarantee that their vision is maintained, regardless of where and to whom it is shown.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.