Just as the coronavirus pandemic began locking down day-to-day life worldwide, Olivia Muscat devised a new way to stave off isolation from her friends. A writer and art critic in Australia, Muscat started a weekly movie club.
For six months, Muscat and three friends have picked a movie each week and discussed it on video chat. They loved The Half of It; they abhorred All the Bright Places. She's very keen to see the new Mulan but not as keen to pay the pricey fee for it. For her club and millions of other people, the pandemic means watching these films at home. But for Muscat herself, who is blind, that also means easier access to audio description, an alternative track to movies that narrates visual action happening on screen in between dialogue.
"I have been able to access all the new-release movies we've watched, easily and independently, and laugh at the physical humor, or not be mystified during a montage or action scene," she said. "Even if the film is terrible, I'm able to experience that terribleness just like my sighted friends."
But the notion of greater movie accessibility isn't universal. Others who are blind or have low vision say home viewing can be just as complicated as going to a theater, underscoring the work that still needs to be done to improve the online experience. That need only gets greater as the pandemic breaks down the regular rules for releasing movies.
Like curb cuts that make sidewalks wheelchair accessible but also help everyone roll items across the street, accommodations for people with disabilities can benefit wider populations. Captions and subtitles can become addictions for just about anyone. Audio-description tracks can also shed new light on a favorite movie.
Like all movie buffs, film fans with sight or hearing disabilities miss going to the theater too. Home viewing can't replicate an audience laughing together, the buttery smell of popcorn, the big screen or the booming sound. But with cinemas still widely shuttered in the US and other countries, Hollywood films such as Mulan are premiering online for home viewing in an unprecedented way. That means some people who are blind, have low vision, or are deaf or hard of hearing can enjoy these blockbuster-style flicks with greater ease and control. But for others, catching that new flick is just as complicated and frustrating as before. That means the entertainment industry's patchwork accommodations may continue to plague some fans with disabilities, even as films become more available on more platforms than ever.
As cinemas shuttered widely, studios and movie distributors at first opted to keep pushing back the theatrical release dates, especially for mega-budget films. But that put Hollywood's tentpole movies in a holding pattern, and it set up a glut of movies to come out top of each other, crimping ticket sales.
So big studios are starting to rebel against rules that premiere movies exclusively in theaters for weeks, practices that were immutable for decades. More and more, high-profile new movies are either skipping theaters entirely or available for home viewing at the same time they hit cinemas.
The filmed version of the Broadway hit Hamilton. Long-awaited franchise revival Bill & Ted Face the Music. Not to mention Judd Apatow's The King of Staten Island, John Stewart's Irresistible and Tom Hanks' Greyhound -- all these movies and others were originally slated for the big screen. All have premiered online instead.
The debut of Mulan, a live-action remake of the 1998 animated movie, takes the coup to a new level. Mulan was virtually guaranteed to be a blockbuster in normal times. Disney's remakes of Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King grossed more than $1 billion worldwide each at the box office. And Mulan, based on a Chinese legend and starring an all-Asian cast, was designed to have particular appeal for China's lucrative movie market.
With a $200 million production budget, the priciest of any Disney live-action remake so far, Mulan is the most expensive movie yet to premiere online. Available on streaming service Disney Plus for an extra fee, it will also have audio description from the get-go.
For Muscat, this new age of straight-to-streaming films "evens the playing field a bit more." People who are deaf and hard of hearing have echoed that sentiment, thanks to pervasive captions for online movies. But others who are blind or have low vision say watching new movies at home is still a disheveled array of accommodations, complicating what many people with disabilities say they want most: the opportunity to enjoy a movie as easily as anyone else.
Alex Howard is a textbook cinephile. A hobbyist reviewer who lives in North Hollywood, California, he's watched more than 200 movies so far this year -- basically on pace for nearly a movie a day.
For the movies he's most excited about, he wants the optimal viewing experience: the big screen, the dark theater, the surround sound. Often that optimal experience would also include a descriptive audio track. But as films have transitioned into quarantine mode, hunting down new releases with audio description, or AD, can be as tricky as before, if not more so, he said.
Howard, who has low vision, can make do without descriptive audio to enjoy films, sometimes with the help of his roommates who describe action to him. "I can tell what I'm missing, I can tell when a shot changes or words come up," he said. "But people who are blind, they can't know what they're missing. It needs to be done right."
And in the US, the availability of audio description is motley, whether online or at a cinema.
Audio description in physical theaters has improved in recent years, according to Joel Snyder, the director of the Audio Description Project at the American Council of the Blind. AMC, Regal and Cinemark, for example, are the three biggest movie exhibitors in the US by number of screens, and they generally offer AD on every one of them. Customers typically listen through headphones connected to a wireless receiver.
But these devices can be notoriously unreliable, with dead batteries, malfunctioning headsets and personnel not trained to troubleshoot.
Snyder has friends with stacks of complimentary passes to theaters, he said. "Every time they go, they get another complimentary pass because [the theater] screwed up the device," he said. But people with disabilities don't want free passes, he added. They want to enjoy the movie.
Beyond those potential theatrical snafus, not all film titles have AD tracks, whether at a theater or online. These tracks are typically provided by studios or distributors.
"Some studios see it as a thing they must have...because they have blind customers such as myself, and that's what they're supposed to do as a civil right," said Everette Bacon, a board member of the National Federation of the Blind and an advocate for audio description. "And some studios just don't."
Mulan will debut on Disney Plus with audio description. But Apatow's comedy The King of Staten Island, for example, skipped theaters for an online release, and it didn't have AD available for more than a month.
Foreign films, in particular, can be challenging for blind fans. Parasite, the breakout Korean-language film that won this year's Oscar for best picture, isn't available in the US with audio description. Without an official English-language dub either, English speakers who can't read subtitles are left out of the most vaunted movie of the last year.
Even if a film's studio or distributor creates an AD track for its theatrical release, that's no guarantee that it will be available when that title moves online. Netflix and Disney Plus have good track records for offering audio description. So too does the Apple TV app, as well as all the Apple TV Plus original shows and movies there.
But HBO's newer, bigger streaming app? No audio description at all.
Even though audio description is intrinsically linked to specific films, the movie and its AD track are considered two separate pieces of content. That means licensing deals don't necessarily bundle them together. Audio description created for theatrical release may never make it online. And even if a service like Netflix creates its own audio description for a licensed movie that lacks it, that alternate track stays with Netflix. The AD doesn't follow the film when it moves to other platforms.
Home viewing for people who are deaf or hard of hearing is dramatically different by comparison. Closed captions, which are the subtitles that spell out dialogue and other audio elements of a film, are pervasive for home viewing of films and TV -- even better than in theaters.
Most theaters offer closed-captioning or sound-amplification devices for customers who are deaf or hard of hearing, but these gadgets are prone to the same problems that plague audio-description devices.
They're also just a pain.
"They're cumbersome, they're bulky, they rest on my head or they occupy real estate on my seat," said Eric Kaika, the CEO of TDI, an advocacy group focused on accessibility in media, tech and telecom.
Only within the last couple years, places like Hawaii and Washington, DC, have begun to offer a greater selection of screenings with open captions. Whereas closed captions are individually controlled, open captions at a theater means words show up at the bottom of the big screen itself. In places where open-caption screenings aren't standard, customers can try to schedule a special screening with their local cinema.
Those open-caption screenings can be joyful, Kaika said, freeing deaf and hard-of-hearing movie-goers to enjoy a flick just like everyone else. But prescheduled open-caption screenings, in the rare places they occur, aren't necessarily at times people prefer. And when a customer requests a special open-caption screening, the accommodation depends on the theater's willingness and availability.
But with straight-to-streaming, "I can watch it at my time, and it's almost guaranteed to have closed captions," he said. "I can adjust the captions, change the contrast, change the size to my liking."
The difference between the pervasiveness of captions for home viewing and the unreliable availability of audio description boils down to the history of those two accommodations. US laws back in the 1990s required captioning tech in television sets and for TV programming, said Howard A. Rosenblum, the CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.
"Audio description was developed more recently, and is catching up," he said.
That produces knock-on effects for the availability of AD online.
For example, a landmark accessibility law -- 2010's 21st Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act, known as CVAA -- mandated that any programming on TV with captioning or audio description must also be shown with them on the internet too. But only a small fraction of TV programming is required to have audio description, whereas captions are ubiquitous on TV. The disparity has carried over online.
The ability to watch new releases goes beyond the simple enjoyment of a movie. For people with disabilities, it can mean diving deeper into fandoms, participating in water cooler chat about big pop-culture moments and enjoying the liberation of avoiding spoilers.
"Description just creates more meaningful access to culture," Snyder said. Noting that the blind and low-vision community has a higher unemployment rate, he said it can potentially have benefits crucial to their lives. "When people are more engaged with their fellow human beings and their culture and their environment, they become ... more employable. If description were more prevalent, it could help."
For Muscat, disabled people shouldn't have to miss out on pop-culture phenomena because of barriers easily overcome by audio description or captions, she said.
Whether Mulan ends up a phenomenon or not, Muscat is a big Disney fan who counts 1998's animated original as one of her favorites. With audio description baked into the remake's global online premiere, Muscat knows she can -- and will -- watch it (maybe after that big fee goes away in December, though).
"If you asked me a few years ago if I ever saw audio description being this immediately and easily accessible on such a highly anticipated film, it would have been a resounding 'no!'" she said. "The fact that I'm wrong about that makes me very happy."