The number of “foreign-language” films released in the UK has risen more or less year-on-year in the last 20, from 96 in 2001 to 346 in 2019. Parasite‘s historic 2020 Oscar win (with Bong Joon-Ho’s widely reported exhortation to overcome the “one inch tall barrier of subtitles”), seemed to signal a seachange in general audiences’ acceptance of subtitled cinema. Netflix and social media have helped to standardise the sight of subtitles with mainstream audiences while, internationally, the idea of employing same-language subtitles to improve literacy has gained traction.
At the same time, non-English language films still represent a small fraction of the UK box office, and exhibitors coming out of a pandemic have to navigate an increasingly homogenised slate of US franchise blockbusters, dwindling resources and narrow margins for error. To succeed, non-English language films also have to engage with some deeply engrained assumptions and prejudices (on both sides of the box office desk) around subtitled screenings.
A subtitled screening, meanwhile, is not necessarily an accessible one. Just because a French film has subtitles, doesn’t mean audiences who generally rely upon descriptive subtitles (AKA captions, SDH or HoH) to enjoy cinema on equal terms will have anything like the same experience as a general audience.
I used to settle for watching films with English subtitles, and in the case of foreign language films, I would sit through the entire screening hoping that there wasn’t any English dialogue, and if there was, that I wouldn’t miss an essential plot point. It wasn’t until I started watching films with descriptive subtitles and attending captioned screenings that I realised how much I was missing out on, how much more information I was getting from descriptive labels, the presence of which drastically enhance my viewing experience and enjoyment. I was especially frustrated with the release of A Quiet Place, a groundbreaking film that spotlights deafness and sign language, as almost all of it was in English subtitles due to the characters’ use of sign language, so it was accessible for people who don’t know ASL. But it wasn’t accessible for Deaf audiences as there wasn’t any descriptive labels and there wasn’t English subtitles for the very few lines of English dialogue. The provision of descriptive subtitles makes my viewing experience an equal one, an experience that I don’t have to compromise on.Charlotte Little, Access Consultant (Matchbox Cine)
Nevertheless, Deaf audiences are regularly excluded from non-English language cinema, whether that’s at physical screenings (where English language films are often, however understandably, given precedence in already niche slots), on VOD (where technical restrictions can mitigate full access measures, if not block them entirely) or on disc (often the last refuge for access). While dedicated programming strands and regular screening slots can ensure Deaf- or disability-focussed programming is accessible to audiences, the wide world of cinema is often frustratingly withheld.
The reasons are often complex, but the barriers to access usually can be delineated according to 1) budgetary restrictions 2) extremely tight schedules 3) a fundamental gap in knowledge and 4) perceived or real technical restrictions. We’ve found that Matchbox can be of use with all four of these elements, leaving the basic will to make improvements the final variable. Happily, most distributors and exhibitors do have that will, even if, due to some combination of the other variables, they’ve not been able to deliver accessible screenings.
Kirill Serebrennikov’s Russian-language Petrov’s Flu is the second project in an ongoing collaboration we’ve developed with one such, UK-based distributor, Sovereign Films. Beginning with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Radu Jude, 2021), continuing through Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021) and, most recently, Theo and the Metamorphosis (Damien Odoul, 2022), we’ve created descriptive subtitles and sometimes audio description for their releases – access materials that can then be used in various contexts – theatrical, VOD and/or disc. Sovereign’s releases are mostly non-English language (or have multiple audio languages, as is the case with Memoria). Our work with Sovereign, particularly on Petrov’s Flu (the release of which was supported by BFI’s Audience Fund, awarding funds from the National Lottery) is good model for how independent distributors can work with access providers to develop access materials.
A QUICK ASIDE ON TERMINOLOGY – we advocate for the term “descriptive subtitles” when discussing access materials made for films. There are essentially two categories of subtitles, and only one universally useful distinction. On one hand, you have “subtitles”, which contain only dialogue (whether it’s translated into English from another language, or simply transcribes English dialogue). On the other, you have “descriptive subtitles” which also contain descriptive elements such as sound effects [Petrov coughs], speech identifiers [Petrova] and music labels [Breezy accordion music]. Descriptive subtitles are also variously known as captions (open or closed), Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SDH), Hard of Hearing (HoH). Part of the problem with “captions” is that it is often used interchangeably with subtitles, leading to confusion at every possible stage – in planning and discussing accessibility, managing film materials, advertising screenings, etc. We prefer “descriptive subtitles” because it’s clear, removes ambiguity and simply denotes what the file is, rather than who it’s supposedly for (bearing in mind the majority of viewers using subtitles are not Deaf, nor hard-of-hearing; they are also widely valued by viewers for whom English is not their first language and neurodivergent audience members). NB there are further subtleties, particularly regarding file formats and when discussing various different contexts, but the least confusing and most fundamental dichotomy is subtitles vs descriptive subtitles.
To illustrate the difference between subtitles and descriptive subtitles and to explain the inadequacies of a basic English subtitle file for access purposes, non-English language films are very useful. For example, the basic subtitle file for Petrov’s Flu (above, left), which translates all of the Russian dialogue (and all the Cyrillic text on-screen) into English, contains 1,841 subtitles. The descriptive subtitle file (above, right), which adds all the elements in order to make the film accessible, contains 2,285 subtitles, an increase of 19.4%. The intention is to give as equal an experience as possible, and those additional 444 subtitles are essential in that regard. To understand the potential shortfall, we only have to imagine a film with the last reel missing, or with 1/5 of the screen obscured throughout.
Sovereign engaged Matchbox to produce access materials (both descriptive subtitles and audio description) for the release of Petrov’s Flu. As is relatively typical, there was a short amount of time to produce those materials, so that they could be packaged with the theatrical DCP. Often, local distributors are given either pre-packaged DCPs, ready for screening, or versions of the film with their local language subtitles already burned-in. Distributors are faced with the choice to re-package the DCPs (provided to them by sales agents) at often significant cost (labs often charge excessively for each additional subtitle file), on top of the production of the access materials themselves. Access materials, which, it should be said, are not often packaged with the films when they are sold (which does make some amount of sense for international titles – a French film, for example, will sometimes be delivered with French descriptive subtitles but not English). Meanwhile, distributors’ delivery schedules are often extremely narrow – they may take delivery of a film just weeks before their DCP must be finalised for release, or even for a planned festival screening, meaning the access materials need created and approved in a very narrow window (and, with already narrow margins, it can be hard to justify the expense of creating a new DCP for a theatrical release if you’ve created one weeks or months earlier for a festival screening, but sans access materials because there wasn’t time yet to complete them).
Luckily, we had recourse to a “clean” version of Petrov’s Flu, with no burned-in subtitles. Sovereign also could give us access to various deliverables from the production, including a music cue sheet, which helped us to make full and accurate access materials. We then created a suite of files for use in various contexts – a full descriptive subtitles file, for use with the theatrical DCP (and any subsequent disc release) and a DS-only file, designed to work around the basic English subtitle file. The DS-only file removes some of the additional elements that clash with the basic file – for example speech identifiers, or sound effects that would otherwise be merged with the dialogue-only subtitles. (NB It’s possible to create a file that simply raises those clashing subtitles to the top of the screen – useful when making an accessible DCP from a video with burned-in subtitles – but most online contexts can’t support the requisite HTML code in the sidecar file, rendering them ineffective at best, at worst leaving the code visible to the viewer).
This latter is a necessarily compromised file, of diminished effectiveness, but it’s a necessary evil (for the moment), since many online platforms either can’t support multiple subtitle files (meaning the basic English file takes the only slot) or don’t support “sidecar” (read: separate, optional) subtitle files at all. This latter is the case for some VOD platforms which viewers commonly cast to their televisions – if subtitles are required, they must therefore be burned-in/hardcoded (a permanent part of the film’s image) and, again, the basic English file usually takes precedence.
In terms of audio description, it’s relatively uncommon for non-English languages films in theatrical distribution. Since AD scripts need to incorporate any on-screen text, including subtitles (which must be voiced along with the descriptions of visual information), AD is more likely to be produced against dubbed version of films. It means a film like Petrov’s Flu, as long and verbose as it is, presents a particular challenge. Dubbing an entire feature is still prohibitively expensive for an indepedent exhibitor, releasing into one market (a little more economical for Disney+ or Netflix, who coincidentally report that international audiences increasingly prefer dubbed films to subtitled ones). Truthfully, creating AD for Petrov’s Flu was a mammoth task for our scripter and our voicer, who are generally adept and well practiced at creating and delivering concise and effective descriptions. We can be confident, though, that we didn’t cut corners to deliver the file.
I’d love to see SDH subtitles become the norm on foreign films. It’s just good practice and I hope more distributors do this.Will Mager (writer, director, producer)
We’ve been able to help Sovereign navigate all these potential complications to ensure their releases are as accessible as possible and to produce theatrical quality materials with very tight turnarounds. The key word their for us, for Sovereign and for audiences is “quality”. We’re determined that our subtitles help to create an equal experience for everyone potentially in attendance – bearing in mind that the Deaf audience itself isn’t monolithic, but encompasses people deaf from birth, those that have become deaf, hard-of-hearing people, those whose first or preferred language is BSL, etc – including a fully-hearing audience. Cinema is essentially immersive and communal and, rather than compartmentalise audiences, the hope is to bring them together.
That’s not possible with sub-par subtitles, or with unproved and unreliable technology that makes Deaf and/or disabled audiences the problem. As advocates as well as practioners, we’re focussed on making sure the materials we produce are the best quality and that they meet the expectations of the audience, rather than the bare minimum to qualify as access materials – e.g. lyrics are transcribed wherever necessary and possible and untranslated, non-English dialogue is transcribed wherever possible (if a film-maker has chosen not to translate non-English dialogue, instead of simply labelling [He speaks Spanish], if we’re able to, we’ll transcribe it, “Los subtítulos son geniales.”). As all good subtitlers do, we go the extra mile in our research to confirm spellings and phraseology, to identify needle drops and source official lyrics.
As with all our work, regardless of the context, the materials we make for Sovereign are made to the best professional quality, so audiences can be confident that their titles meet those standards while exhibitors can rely upon the materials to be present (and to present correctly). With the materials available – and crucially prepared for every context – audiences can begin to expect upon the provision being there without them asking for it.
Cinemas and other exhibitors can also make useful changes (while avoiding unfortunate mis-steps). Ensure your accessible screenings are listed and advertised prominently and correctly. Don’t lump simply subtitled screenings together with accessible screenings on your website’s “accessible” screenings page, or in your reporting – that means when you boast about the percentage of accessible screenings in your programme, it’ll be entirely accurate. Be confident and informed when engaging with your general audiences – challenge assumptions, including your own. Your general audiences may generally swerve “open-captioned” screenings, but that’s because they have the choice, and perhaps because they’ve had bad experiences of subtitled ones – they may even, as has been evidenced, wrongly believe open-captioned films screen with no sound. Educate staff, both customer-facing and behind the scenes of the value and requirements of accessibility, as well as the correct terminology, in order to avoid unnecessary barriers to access (such as when access materials are not requested from distributors, or if they are, they’re advertised incorrectly).
The truth is people will watch a film with subtitles in, even if they don’t realise it straight away. After all, the highest grossing movie of all time is Avatar, a film where over a third of its dialogue is in Na’Vi… which is subtitled.Film Stories
There is a massive potential audience for accessible screenings of all stripes, but the main obstacles to developing it are consistency in quality and general availability. Audiences’ trust needs to be earned before they will reliably turn out for accessible screenings – and not just the (if they’re lucky) one a day, scheduled during work hours. Meanwhile, mainstream audiences are arguably largely untested in their tolerance for more accessible screenings. As practioners and advocates, all we can do is help to break down those barriers to access – all that remains is the will to finally sweep them away.
Petrov’s Flu will be released to VOD on Monday 27th June.
For more information, check sovereignfilms.co.uk, or follow Sovereign Films on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.