FIRST-RUNS FOR EVERYONE TECHNOLOGY HELPS HOLLYWOOD REACH MORE CUSTOMERS.
SHERMAN OAKS - Blind since birth, Sheila Styron is not your average movie buff.
Dialogue and soundtrack got her through most plots but there were always moments where she'd turn to a friend and whisper, ``What's going on?''
And for that she felt guilty - until she attended ``Titanic'' at a specially equipped Sherman Oaks theater where headphones let the blind hear a professional narrator describe key scenes.
``The feeling of independence and personal enjoyment it gives me is indescribable,'' said Styron, 47, a composer and music producer living in West Hollywood. ``It's completely unintrusive to the people sitting with you.''
The same General Cinemas theater on Van Nuys Boulevard has panes of clear plastic in front of some seats so deaf patrons can read subtitles reflected from a light panel on the back wall, much like a TelePrompTer.
That way, they too can watch a first-run feature that, to their friends who are not hearing- or sight-impaired, look and sound completely normal.
Styron has seen ``Dinosaur,'' ``The Patriot'' and other films at this theater, the only public movie house in Southern California equipped with this technology. She attended ``Pearl Harbor'' there Tuesday.
``The idea is to bring the magic of movies to people who have never enjoyed a movie or at least haven't in several years because they've lost their sight or hearing,'' said Larry Goldberg, director of the Media Access Group at Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH.
Media Access Group is the new name for two recent consolidated public service departments that are hoping to make their captioning and descriptive services more widely available. One of the departments, the Captioning Center, pioneered the use of closed captioning in 1972.
To be closer to the movie industry, Media Access Group recently opened an office in Burbank, where a staff of 50 transcribes and narrates films using the Motion Picture Access, or MoPix, technology.
``Our clients were a little uncomfortable shipping these things across country, especially when you're dealing with sensitive material like first-run feature films,'' Goldberg said.
In fact, the creators of ``Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace'' reluctantly sent a copy to Boston in 1999 - by armed guard. They then said it wouldn't happen again unless the captioning studio moved closer to Los Angeles, Goldberg said.
Hollywood studios can reap extra ticket revenue from the estimated 34 million people in the United States who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind or visually impaired.
``We want to see our films available to the widest possible audience,'' said Mark Christiansen, head of theatrical distribution operations for Glendale-based DreamWorks SKG. ``If we can do something that is good for the community overall and makes good economic sense then we will.''
DreamWorks paid the $4,000 cost to make films like ``The Mexican'' and ``Saving Private Ryan'' compatible with the MoPix system.
Sony Pictures Entertainment did the same for ``The Patriot,'' ``Charlie's Angels'' and ``A Knight's Tale.''
``Until now there had to be specially scheduled performances for open captioning,'' said Jeff Blake, the studio's president of marketing and distribution. ``There certainly are costs associated with equipping the theaters that we understand are a problem.''
Only 15 theaters nationwide have this equipment, which costs about $10,000. The exhibition industry is littered with bankrupt companies but several major chains are said to be considering the system. Their reluctance so far lies in the cost and not wanting to be pressured to add it.
There are plans to bring it to more theaters in California and elsewhere, but the relative scarcity of these movie houses mean narration and captioning is added to only one or two films per month.
To come up with the descriptions, a narrator first listens to the film, ignoring the images, to learn what parts seem confusing. Snippets of narration, often less than five seconds, are then inserts between lines of dialogue.
The soundtrack plays in one ear of the headphones, the description in the other, Styron said. The extra information she hears often leaves her knowing more about the plot and characters than her sighted friends.
(1 -- color) Seats equipped with caption screens at the General Cinemas in Sherman Oaks help deaf patrons follow the dialogue.
David Sprague/Staff Photographer
(2 -- color) Sheila Styron wears headphones to hear narration of action she can't see while at the movies with her guide dog, Dorian.
Evan Yee/Staff Photographer