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Minneapolis woman advocates for open captions at MSP Film at The Main

Keenan Gao worked for years to get open captioning at St. Anthony Main Theatre. Now that MSP Film Society is taking over, Gao is advocating for OC to continue.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — After working years to get open captioning at St. Anthony Main Theatre, a Minneapolis woman is now advocating for open captions to continue at the cinema once MSP Film Society takes over. 

Keenan Gao can remember the first movie she saw at St. Anthony Main Theatre. It was "The Secret Life of Pets" in 2016 while a student at the University of Minnesota. 

"I walked in and I was so sad that there wasn't any sort of captions or any way I could enjoy the movie. That's just been a feeling my entire life growing up. I've never been able to watch a movie and be fully part of the movie experience the way that my friends and family are," said Gao, who is hard of hearing. 

Gao started talking with the theatre owner, John Rimarcik, about adding captions. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice added a final rule to the American Disabilities Act requiring movie theaters to provide closed movie captioning and audio description. 

Closed captioning at the movies uses a device with a separate screen that sits in a cup holder. The person then looks between the device's screen and the movie screen. 

"There's a lot of quality control issues with the devices. They often break or you lose connection. Sometimes the battery dies or the battery is faulty. It won't always connect with the screen properly and it's just a bad user experience for anyone who uses the device," Gao explained. 

Gao said open captioning is ideal. It appears on the screen similar to subtitles but with more detail. 

After many delays, Gao filed a discrimination charge in early 2020 with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. 

As a small theater, Rimarcik said it would cost tens of thousands of dollars for captioning devices. But many movies come with an open caption file that is free to turn on. 

Rimarcik told KARE 11 that after hearing from Gao, he wanted to do the right thing. Through meetings, they came to an agreement and in the summer of 2021 St. Anthony Main Theatre became the first cinema in the nation to offer open captions for all showtimes. 

"I give John a lot of credit for being willing to take that step," Gao said. "The first time I went in... I sat there and honestly I kind of cried because I'm 28 years old and this is the first year that I can just go into the movies." 

Credit: Keenan Gao
St. Anthony Main Theatre started offering open captions for all its showtimes starting in July 2021.

However, Rimarcik said a majority of the feedback was negative with some movie goers asking for their money back. The most common complaint was that the open captions were distracting. 

Gao said they did not make an announcement right away and did not advertise the change to the deaf community until December. She believes over time with more awareness, more people would have been drawn to the theater who are seeking open captions. 

"Because having captions on all movies isn't the norm, there will be growing pains as we advocate for caption quality to improve. But the reality is we have to start somewhere and if we never even advocate for captions to be in the movies, why would they ever try and improve our experience?" Gao said. 

Gao worked closely with Darlene Zangara, executive director for the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing. 

"Captioning really is becoming a way of life for many of us who are deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing and so meaning that in Minnesota that 20% of the population has a hearing loss," Zangara said. 

Zangara also noted that open captions are not just for those in her community. 

"Veterans and many people who are aging, many people with other disabilities, as well as those who are learning English as a second language. It could benefit so many people," Zangara said. "So we just want to be equal  citizens and to do that we need full access. Not only for emergent news or emergency news but also to be able to enjoy movies in a theater." 

Open captioning lasted about six months before St. Anthony Main Theatre screened its last show in January. MSP Film Society is set to take over all five screens with a long-term lease — renaming it MSP Film at The Main. 

"We're not a commercial theater. We're a nonprofit film programmer and exhibitor. The reason we're a nonprofit is we bring in films from all over the world, in many different languages, and from many different industries that otherwise are not seen on screens in this country. Many of those films do not even come with open captions," explained Susan Smoluchowski, executive director of the Film Society of Minneapolis St. Paul. 

Credit: Heidi Wigdahl
MSP Film at the Main will open at the end of April.

Smoluchowski said 65%-70% of the films they will be showing do not have open captions. As far as the ones that do include the option for open captions, Smoluchowski said they do not plan on offering open captions for all showtimes. 

"We certainly will provide open captions on all of the films that are available with open captions at certain times," Smoluchowski said. 

Last year, AMC Theatres added open captioning to certain showings across the nation, including at some Minnesota locations. Gao said other places will also offer open captioning upon request but sometimes those requests need to be made weeks in advance. 

"The thought of having open captions only a few days, it doesn't feel great. If anything it sort of bothers me because what they're really saying is, 'We don't want you to come; we only value you as a customer on these specific days, these specific times,'" Gao said. 

Gao and Zangara plan to have more talks with MSP Film Society. 

"We really need to accommodate and want to accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing community; we also need and want to accommodate all of our constituents," Smoluchowski said. 

She pointed out that there needs to be more education around open captions, something they are interested in pursuing when they open at the end of April. 

"Many are just so accustomed to international films with the subtitles and so we just need to figure out how we can support all of those independent filmmakers to be able to include the captioning, as well, as part of their normal process in developing their films," Zangara said. 

According to Smoluchowski, one of their board members is working on the production side to educate filmmakers and producers. 

"It really is about education and awareness but also empathy," Gao said. "Empathy for choosing to decide that even if your own experience might be impacted in a way that you don't want, you're wiling to include the rest of us." 

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