2. Monika Leska and Making Movie Events Accessible for All
A Q&A about a new cinema initiative that the New Orleans Film Society is participating in.
It’s exciting to me whenever I have an opportunity to learn more about new technology and new initiatives from movie theaters to make the moviegoing experience more accessible and inclusive for individuals with disabilities. So, you can imagine my joy when I found out about The Film Event Accessibility Working Group (FEAW), and that the New Orleans Film Society (NOFS) would be a partner in the program.
With this year’s New Orleans Film Festival in the rearview mirror, I asked the FEAW coordinator for NOFS, Monika Leska, about the challenges in ADA compliance, in community outreach, in training, and in achieving such noble goals for local moviegoers:
How did the FEAW come together, from concept to realization? Was there a specific moment or incident that inspired NOFS to join with other groups to form this initiative?
The group was initiated by Cassidy Dimon, a filmmaker and event producer who currently serves as the Director of Programs, Events, & Accessibility for Full Spectrum Features in Chicago, IL. As a film professional with unilateral hearing loss, she has worked diligently to bridge the gap between accessibility and film events for the past five years. The film events/festivals have not been accessible to many patrons, and there were not many discussions happening on this topic between the film festivals. Cassidy sent an invitation to Fallon Young, NOFS’s executive director at that time, to participate in this group:
“Accessibility definitely seems to be a bit of a buzz topic in our industry lately, and I hear lots of folks talking at the filmmaker and field level about accessibility, but I haven't come across any operations folks that were getting together to talk about how we make our events and offerings more accessible. So I decided to put together a group of organizations and festivals to form an Operations Accessibility Working Group where we can share our knowledge and findings, help each other out, and eventually report back out to the community so we can all support each other in making our organizations and events more accessible to all.”
This was in May of 2021. Fallon passed this on to me, as I had already been trying to implement our accessibility initiative within NOFS for some time, probably in 2019. It was really great to see other organizations trying to do the same, so it was a perfect match for us. The pandemic has undoubtedly slowed our work in this area, but participation in FEAW, on the other hand, has accelerated it.
What kind of preparation was involved in achieving FEAW goals for the 2023 New Orleans Film Festival?
Our work with FEAW prompted us to set our goal to ensure that all films exhibited at the New Orleans Film Festival have closed captions. That’s not an easy task because, being a film exhibitor without a venue, we are not in control of this aspect, as we rely on local theaters to have the necessary equipment and for films to be delivered with caption files.
In the past, we “recommended” that captions be included with film exhibition copies, but in the last two years, we switched the language to “required.” We have added this requirement into our FilmFreeway film submission process, so filmmakers are aware while their films are being submitted for consideration, but the real execution happens when we accept films to the festival. Our tech and programming team reiterates the caption requirement. In 2022, we really didn’t have any tools to execute this mandate besides verbally asking for it, and we had 30-40% compliance. In 2023, we took it to another level and decided to add a condition to this requirement: to depend the exhibition fee payment on the closed caption inclusion with the film copy. That additional condition doubled the compliance; we have received captions with about 70% of films.
We were also able to review the captions during our QC process and work with some filmmakers to correct them if they were improper. We expanded our tech team this year, led by Mary Lynn Sylvan, to have Ted and Maureen join forces to ensure we had the capacity for the full review process. We will continue this effort until we reach the moment where all films have captions.
This is just half of the work because now we have to ensure that our screening venues have the capabilities to play those files and that they have operable equipment for audiences to use during the screenings. We set up some of our venues, and we can rent accessibility devices to equip them, but with local venues, we have to collaborate with them to make sure they are available during our event. Unfortunately, not all screening venues we use for the Festival have this feature, but we hope it will change.
What kind of related training has NOFS provided to its staff?
In the last two years, we have hired a Venue Operations Manager for NOFF - Woody Shticks - who has expertise in making events accessible, and he has been instrumental in making all staff understand what accessibility in practice means and how our events are or are not accessible. We have implemented accessibility concepts and the services we offer into Festival staff and volunteer training, and we continuously discuss how to improve access.
This year, I organized a professional development session for all our Festival staff with one of the “Accessibility at Work” panel speakers we hosted at NOFF - Laura Benge, the Accessibility Manager for Sundance Institute. This was an amazing opportunity for staff to learn from an expert and think about applying it in their work.
We know this is insufficient training for staff, mainly because our staff doesn’t come with any previous experience serving the disability community, but we are making progress each year.
Did local consultants and advocates participate in the event?
I haven’t done much to reach out to the local community in the post-pandemic years, as we were focused on building infrastructure at the Festival before we strengthened our community-building efforts. We plan to hire a local consultant from a disability community to run focus groups next year around the assessment and participation of people with different disability groups in our events. This depends on the grant we are writing, but we hope to find more resources for cross-collaboration with local organizations.
If there is any one issue that can be done better or focused on more by NOFS, what would it be and why?
Community inclusion is an area that we haven’t done much in. While we have a community partnership program, it usually focuses on organizations that relate to films we show that year, so it fluctuates yearly. We hope this program can be expanded to work with communities with disabilities yearly to provide free access to the New Orleans Film Festival.
What advice would you give to New Orleans movie theaters and exhibitors when it comes to improving screening accessibility and inclusion? And for theaters with little to no room in their budget, what steps can they make with few resources?
We are a non-profit organization with limited resources as local small business owners, and we both share the reduction of audiences after the pandemic. But prioritizing access to all can push us all in the same direction. We are very open to sharing resources and partnering to improve accessibility offerings at local movie theaters, as it also serve us. This year, we split costs with a local theater to install assistive listening devices in their venue, as it was essential to NOFS that they be available during NOFF. As a non-profit, we could spearhead grant writing focused on improving our event venues with accessibility features. Still, it needs to be a long-term partner project that benefits both sides. I'm sure small businesses also have access to federal resources that could assist them in funding their efforts to become ADA-compliant.
Sincerely Yours in Moviegoing,
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