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Accessibility and the Lack Thereof in the Film Industry

Accessibility and the Lack Thereof in the Film Industry

 

Carolyn Hinds

 

Being a Black woman means there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t worry that every action I make, every word I say won’t be judged, misconstrued, and dismissed. As a Black female film critic and journalist, I have these same worries, but they’re intensified with the apprehension that what I do and say on social media may end up costing me the access I need in order to do this work that I love so much. As a Black woman who’s disabled and immunocompromised, I also have to think about how this limits what I can do because the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed all the ways in which the aforementioned parts of my identity are seen by those with power in the film industry.

In an article published on August 17, 2021, notable Hollywood filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, is quoted as calling the pandemic “the enemy of cinema” because he shudders at the thought of his most recent film Dune, being seen on regular TVs, and not in cinemas. To Villeneuve, Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Woman 1984, other filmmakers like them, and many in the film criticism sphere the worst thing about the pandemic seems to be not being able to sit in a dark theatre with hundreds of other patrons, breathing the same air, muttering, and munching away on noisy snacks. Before the pandemic, I would’ve said the “theatre experience” is the best way to see a film, any film. But once I learned how dangerous COVID-19 and its many other mutations, coupled with growing anti-vax and anti-mask sentiment, my priorities shifted.

 

Personally I became more concerned about protecting myself and my loved ones. And once I became infected with a moderate case of the virus it was personal and no longer abstract. In April of 2017 I received my official diagnosis of having Relapse Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, the same year I began doing film criticism. Learning to navigate the ways MS was changing my body, and the ways the film industry works for critics as a Black woman has been challenging from the beginning. I never expected that the path I chose to take doing this work would be reflected in how I’m learning to live my life disabled. And I certainly never expected that the pandemic would highlight just how much the lack of accessibility for Black women and disabled people affects us in the same ways.

I know you’re probably wondering why I’m saying all of this. I’m saying it because I want to share what it’s been like for the last 18 months (and counting) to see all the ways the North American film industry says it wants to be more diverse, inclusive and accessible, but the actions and words of those with the power to make sustainable and substantive changes proves otherwise. 

In 2020 it appeared that the change critics from marginalized communities had been advocating for for years was finally happening. With COVID-19 spreading like wildfire across the globe, countries closed their borders, and cities and towns became quiet as mandatory lockdown went into effect everywhere. All industries were impacted, including the film industry. As international travel was no longer possible, the industry – particularly film festivals, began making changes to the way they operated, the most notable being virtual accessibility. What this meant is that all film festivals like TIFF and Sundance, created and launched digital platforms where critics, journalists, audiences, and creatives could view the year’s new cinematic offerings from the safety and comfort of their homes. For critics like me, disabled, immunocompromised, a Person of Color, and also broke, this was the moment we’d been hoping for. The moment of INCLUSION and ACCESSIBILITY!

Not only were we able to attend and have access through online portals during the festivals, for the first time we were receiving access to digital screeners with almost no hesitation from publicists, and the studios they represented. Landing interviews with cast and creative teams of upcoming releases was easier and very convenient as everything was being conducted via Zoom. We had finally found a new, safer and cheaper way of doing things. Requesting a digital link for a screener didn’t seem like such a long shot anymore because studios realized that being more accommodating to a wider pool of critics meant more promotion for their films in a time when cinema attendance was an impossibility. You’d think they would’ve figured out before, but no. 

All seemed fine, relatively speaking, until the world started to move again in May of 2021. Travel bans were getting looser, stadiums began filling up again, and people began acting like the world was back to normal. It was not and it still isn’t no matter what people would like to tell themselves. People like Villenueve, movie theatre chains and studio publicists. It has been quite jarring and disturbing to see how hard those in the film industry have been pushing the public to attend cinemas again. 

A critically-acclaimed director whose work is well known, and loved by cinephiles and casual theatre goers, essentially saying that the cinema is the only worthwhile way to experience a film, isn’t as innocuous as it may seem. To many it’s just him talking about appreciating the experience and hard work that’s gone into creating his film…which is…fair enough. I’m never one to dismiss the hundreds of hours or years that goes into creating one film. But I’m also not one to ignore this statement by Villeneuve:  “That’s the thing. We understand that the cinema industry is under tremendous pressure right now. That I get. The way it happened, I’m still not happy. Frankly, to watch Dune on a television, the best way I can compare it is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub. For me, it’s ridiculous. It’s a movie that has been made as a tribute to the big-screen experience.” This dismisses how the advent of the TV, DVD and more recently digital streaming platforms like HBO Max, Netflix and PrimeVideo have been a blessing for disabled people, and those without the financial means to go to a theatre for every film that drops. 

Statements like that to me reveal directors don’t really consider what the real “theatre experience” is for most people. For those not privileged to attend private industry screenings, or theatres in clean, swanky, upscale locations, attending the cinema is not a simple task or even comfortable. It can be a pretty sizable financial undertaking for those working minimum wage or below jobs and those who live in households with multiple adults and children, and this is before you take in travel time and costs. For disabled people being able to see a film on the big screen can be physically impossible as the nearest theatre may not have accommodations to suit their specific needs. In countries outside of North America going to the theatre might even be a completely different experience culturally. In Barbados where I’m from, it’s tradition to talk to the screen and your neighbour. People give running commentary on what’s happening on-screen, and in the drive-in it’s customary to honk your horn when you approve of a big action set piece, or a funny bit of dialogue. I may be wrong, but I don’t think directors, if they haven’t grown up in settings where these situations occur, consider them at all.

And that was before COVID-19 was an additional issue. Now, going to the theatre could literally be a matter of life or death, and that’s nothing to dismiss as an unnecessary concern.

Since June, it has been nigh impossible to get digital screening links for any of the big budget and “auteur” films. With all the talk of the pandemic making things more inclusive and easier for everyone in the industry, things seem to have not only gone back to the status quo where Black female critics are struggling to do our jobs while others get easy sailing through advance screeners and coveted interviews, I believe they are even worse now because the studios seem to be making it a point to deny access unless critics are willing to prove how dedicated we are to our jobs by going to a theatre during an ongoing pandemic. 

As someone who’s not only immunocompromised but was lucky enough to survive a moderate case of COVID-19 (though I still have long term side-effects like altered taste and decreased sense of smell), the thought of attending a cinema packed with people even if they’re all masked and vaccinated, fills me with anxiety and dread. And because of this I, and many other disabled critics and journalists are prevented from being able to provide coverage for many of the films being released in cinemas, as that’s the only option being offered to us. It’s ableist and unacceptable.

It’s quite disconcerting and hurtful to be told screener links aren’t available, but to let the publicist know if I enjoy the requested film in the cinema, even after I’ve informed them I’m an immunocompromised critic and unable to attend an in-person event for health reasons.

But this isn’t limited to just individual screeners, it’s happening with film festivals as well. In August the Venice Film Festival was strictly in-person and the New York Film Festival held outdoor screenings and virtual events, but no virtual screenings. For NYFF the decision to bar critics unable to attend in-person from access was “in response to distributor and filmmaker partners and in light of festivals returning and theaters reopening across the country.” Yet again, this is ableist as those with the power in the industry to show they understand and care about accessibility and inclusivity, do the exact opposite of what those words mean.

I believe it would behoove directors, studios and festival directors to acknowledge that we’re still in an ongoing pandemic where over 700,000 Americans, and over 28,000 Canadians where I am, have died, with more dying daily from this virus. It would serve them – and the society as a whole – well to stop pretending that everything is back to normal, as their words are seen as a litmus test by regular citizens of how things should be.

Something I think that also needs to change is the way directors view accessibility, or the lack thereof in the industry. An example of this is how Closed Captioning – its presence and the creation of a universal format for the font and screen placement – for digital screeners have yet to be standardized. It’s beyond me why in 2021 all screeners don’t come with the option for critics, journalists and others in the industry to access them aren’t afforded this. It’s not only a matter of making the job easier for those of us with auditory and visual processing issues and disabilities, it just makes the job easier for everyone in general. And denigrating or dismissing the pivotal role at-home viewing has played in the success of the film industry globally, seems rather elitist to me. It’s through the use of convenient personal devices such as TVs and laptops that the majority of the world even becomes aware of the works these same directors hold up in such high regard. Films like Jaws, the Star Wars series, The Thing, Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Arrival and so on and so forth were and are still first being seen from the comfort of people’s homes. Before it was on Sundays through programs like Turner Classic Movie specials, and rented VHS tapes from the local video store (again only accessible if you had access to cable channels to start with whether in North America or any other country), then once those started to become less of an interest to younger generations the switch to digital streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon PrimeVideo, and BlueRays, became the industry’s saving grace. Though I’m not sure if the powers that be have even recognized this.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying films shouldn’t be seen in cinemas, far from it, but I think it’s important to point out that without the accessibility and convenience at-home viewing provides, the film industry as a whole wouldn’t be where it is today. Yes, all filmmakers make their films with the intention for them to be seen on the big screen, and yes all audiences would love to be able to do so, but the reality is that’s not possible and not at all realistic for every film made, for a myriad of reasons, some of which I’ve pointed out.

It’s my earnest wish that the powers that be in the film industry recognize the value the work of freelance critics and journalists from marginalised communities play in the success of the industry. To keep ignoring our values perpetuates ableism, racism, and sexism, and is counterproductive. Our perspectives, input and presence matter just as much as our non-disabled and white counterparts in all things related to this work, and not just films or shows created by and starring people who look like us. Though even when that’s the case priority for coverage is still given to staffed white writers from the bigger trades.

True accessibility and inclusivity means seeing us for who we are, showing respect for this by making space and access for our bodies and voices and what we can bring to the table, even if it has to be done virtually. 

 

ABOUT

Photo of a Black female with dark brown complexion, close cropped black hair, wearing a wide smile, clear plastic glass frames and sweater with a geometric pattern in eggplant, sky blue, white and light peach colors.
Photo of a Black female with dark brown complexion, close cropped black hair, wearing a wide smile, clear plastic glass frames and sweater with a geometric pattern in eggplant, sky blue, white and light peach colors.

 

Carolyn Hinds is a Tomatometer-Approved freelance Film Critic, Journalist and Podcaster. Her published work can be found on ButWhyTho?, Observer, Atom Tickets and many other online publications, as well as in print as a contributing writer for the 2021 Canada Media Fund’s Annual Trends Report. She’s a member of the African  American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), Time UP Critical, and obtained her Diploma in Paralegal Studies from Seneca College. 

As a critic, I believe my personal experiences such as being a Barbadian immigrant living in Toronto, and outlook on life, gives readers and listeners a different  perspective they can appreciate, and help them to see things in a new light. I’m the proud host of Beyond The Romance Drama Podcast – a podcast dedicated to  discussing Korean and other Asian dramas, Carolyn Talks…, my own YouTube  channel, and Co-host of So Here’s What Happened! Podcast (@SHWH_Pod). I also Co-host the weekly science fiction film and TV live tweet event #SaturdayNightSciFi. You can also find me regularly tweeting reactions for my  current drama watches with #DramasWithCarrie, and my social media handle is @CarrieCnh12.

 

 

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