Sundance jury walks out after festival fails to provide captions

Judges for Sundance’s US Dramatic Competition walked out of Friday night’s premiere of “Magazine Dreams” over an incident in which the festival failed to provide adequate closed captioning for deaf and hard of hearing audience members, including judge Marlee Matlin.

Members of the dramatic jury – consisting of Jeremy O. Harris, Eliza Hittman and Matlin – collectively decided to leave the film when it began after a captioning device provided to Matlin failed to work. While the device was repaired hours later, it underlined a bigger problem going on behind the scenes regarding the festival’s ability to make films accessible to all viewers. The festival said the judges plan to screen the film as a group before the end of the festival.

According to multiple sources, the jury has repeatedly expressed concern to both Sundance and filmmakers that films screened at this year’s festival should have closed captions. At other international festivals, including Cannes and Venice, films are subtitled on screen in multiple languages. This year’s application for credentials at Sundance asked attendees if they needed access to closed captioning.

However, multiple sources state that several filmmakers declined the request to provide open captioning on screen, citing the cost and time involved in making another print. Sources say some buyers even suggested that the inclusion of on-screen subtitles could somehow hurt the film’s asking prices in the market as they try to secure distribution.

Amidst the ‘Magazine Dreams’ controversy, the jury sent a signed letter to festival filmmakers begging them to show ‘open caption DCP’ prints.

“We have all traveled to Utah to celebrate independent film and those who dedicate their lives to making it,” reads a copy of the letter obtained by Variety. “It’s a thrill to be in a room with others who love movies and cheering them on together, and Sundance has been an important place for each of us to do that throughout our varied careers. The American independent film movement began as a way to make film accessible to everyone, not just the most privileged among us. As a jury, our ability to celebrate the work you all put into making these films has been disrupted by the fact that they are not accessible to all three of us.”

In response to the incident, Sundance CEO Joana Vicente issued a statement: “Our goal is to make all experiences (in-person and online) as accessible as possible to all participants. Admittedly, our accessibility efforts are always evolving and feedback helps us move forward for the community as a whole.”

Sundance has historically gone to great lengths to accommodate people with a variety of disabilities as part of its stated mandate of inclusion. This year, two interpreters from ASL joined the festival management and filmmakers on stage for opening speeches and Q&A sessions after screenings.

In 2020, the festival enabled “Crip Camp” co-director James Lebrecht, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, to attend major events, including the premiere of the film. Sources say the festival tried to circumvent the “Magazine Dreams” team’s refusal to provide subtitles and gave Matlin alternative technology, which malfunctioned. The premiere’s start time was delayed by 45 minutes. A source says the delay was due to a technical issue, but it remains unclear if it was related to the subtitles.

It is not immediately clear whether other films now allow on-screen subtitles after this accident.

“Magazine Dreams” is directed by Elijah Bynum and is about a black amateur bodybuilder, played by Jonathan Majors, who struggles to find a human connection.

Read the full statement from Vicente, CEO of Sundance:

“Our goal is to make all experiences (in-person and online) as accessible as possible for all participants. Admittedly, our accessibility efforts are always evolving and feedback helps us move forward for the community as a whole.

“The screening device used to provide closed captioning was not working on one of our Friday night premieres. The jury left so they could see it together at another time during the festival. Our team immediately went to work on the devices in that room to retest them for the next screening, and the device worked without any glitches.

“Our team has done an extraordinary job in this area, but there is always more work to do. We all still need to do more while learning and considering the community as a whole.

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