As a wheelchair user, I’ve often found spontaneous cinema trips difficult. My local independent cinema has just one wheelchair space, tucked right on the back row. If another wheelchair user has booked ahead, then my movie plans are quickly scuppered. At the larger chain cinema, the wheelchair spaces are extremely close to the screen. When I went to see Wonder Woman, I had to watch with my neck craned awkwardly upwards. It wasn’t exactly the cinematic experience I’d hoped for.
Since the start of the pandemic, many have understandably lamented the closure of cinemas. But for some disabled people, the move to online streaming has been a welcome change.
After the film industry scrambled to rethink how to distribute new releases when cinemas first closed in March, many films now hit streaming platforms on the day they were intended to premiere in movie theatres. Trolls World Tour became an unlikely hit during the first lockdown, when Universal Studios released the film to rent on Apple TV. It made more for the studio in three weeks of its digital release than the original Trolls film did during five months in cinemas, leading some to question the future of the traditional studio-to-cinema model.
Other big new releases also premiered on streaming platforms last year. In July, Netflix reportedly paid $56 million to distribute The Trial Of The Chicago 7 after COVID halted its cinema release, and the Beanie Feldstein-starring How to Build a Girl was released on Amazon Prime in the same month. Disney used its new streaming platform Disney+ to premiere the live action remake of Mulan.
The price to view such films usually mirrors or is significantly less than what it would cost to watch at the cinema. Disney charged viewers £19.99 for a “Premier Access” pass to watch Mulan when it was released, alongside the monthly Disney+ subscription fee of £5.99 – a lot, but not much compared to a family cinema ticket. Other platforms charge a smaller one-off payment, or include new releases in the price of a subscription.
But for disabled viewers, the cost of streaming films at home isn’t the main draw. While accessible cinema screenings have increased in recent years, these showings are rare – usually midweek matinees and only available at larger cinemas. Now, disabled people can now pay to view the latest films at home, with audio description and seating that works for them.
“Streaming is definitely more accessible for me for several reasons, primarily in that I need subtitles due to neurodivergence and auditory processing issues, which are obviously much more readily available when streaming,” says Charli Clement, a disability activist. “I also often need to take breaks during films relating to both my sensory issues and due to my chronic pain and fatigue. Therefore, doing that at home means I don’t miss anything.”
Like me, Clement does not miss the uncomfortable seating arrangements at her local cinema. “Cinema chairs are also really hard on my body as someone with chronic pain, so I generally avoid them where possible,” she says. “As an environment, cinemas are not really accessible for me at all.”
Deaf journalist and campaigner Liam O’Dell is also enjoying the ability to watch new film releases at home. Before, he had to wait months to see a new film when it reached a streaming platform, by which point the cultural discourse would have moved on.
“Subtitled screenings were available near me before the pandemic started, but these were very limited and only available on certain days,” he says. “Hearing viewers were free to choose any day they pleased to watch the latest release.” Streaming films at home, however, gives O’Dell “more flexibility, freedom and comfort as a deaf viewer”.
Disability equality charity Scope believes that improving accessibility in cinemas would benefit not just disabled viewers, but the film industry as a whole. “By talking to their disabled customers, cinema operators will be able to ensure that they can include equipment, training and procedures that will gain them a loyal customer base,” says Alison Kerry, head of communications at Scope. She adds that disabled people’s spending power is approximately £249 billion per year. “Operators can have a slice of this,” she says, “by ensuring a trip to the cinema is a positive and accessible experience for their disabled customers.”
Cinemas have suffered hugely due to lockdown closures. Cineworld lost an estimated £1.3 billion for the first half of 2020, and has already cut 45,000 jobs due to closures. If and when cinemas are able to reopen, making screenings more accessible could be a way to recoup losses, by attracting a new audience of disabled viewers.
Cinemas can improve accessibility for disabled viewers in a number of ways. Before the pandemic, the BFI Southbank cinema in London offered screenings with closed captions and audio description, and is now making improvements to its online streaming platform. “We work to ensure that BFI Player, our streaming service, is as accessible as possible,” says Jen Smith, head of inclusion at the BFI. “This year, the BFI Flare London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival will be virtual with all the English-language features and shorts closed-captioned and audio-described.”
Other film organisations are also working to make cinema more inclusive. Shape Arts created an accessibility guide for cinemas in partnership with the Independent Cinema Office, while disability support organisation Dimensions has been running “relaxed” screenings at Cineworld, Odeon and Vue cinemas nationwide since 2011. Primarily aimed at autistic viewers, these screenings feature low lights and sound, and allow neurodiverse people to talk and move around freely.
A spokesperson for Dimensions agrees that improving accessibility could have financial benefits for cinemas. “With an estimated 1 percent of people in the UK having an autism diagnosis, the commercial opportunity for cinemas and countless other businesses should be enormous,” they say.
With no date yet confirmed for the end of the UK lockdown, cinemas may stay closed for many more weeks. The film industry is faced with a huge number of challenges this year, but disabled viewers hope that their needs can be heard as it rebuilds.
“I know there has been some apprehension from those in the film industry around streaming and how this would impact film releases and cinemas, but I really hope more films are made available in this way,” O’Dell says. “Streaming is more accessible to disabled people.”
Clement agrees: “COVID has definitely made things like film and theatre more accessible and I hope the streaming of new releases continues.”
Streaming new releases at home may never match the thrill of a watching in a hushed cinema with a bag of fresh popcorn. But perhaps the pandemic can be the push needed to expand this cinema experience to everyone.