Netflix's barrier-free movie screening boasts inclusivity, but some have doubts

Audience members attend a stage greeting event at the barrier-free screening of ″Jung_E″ at Lotte Cinema's Konkuk University branch in eastern Seoul on Jan. 30. [LIM JEONG-WON]

Netflix is working to embrace viewers with disabilities through its “barrier-free” program.

According to Netflix, its new barrier-free screenings include descriptive subtitles on the screen in addition to the dialogue, catering to those with hearing impairments, and a narration of what is happening on screen play-by-play for those who are visually impaired.

To illustrate how it works, Netflix invited audience members with either hearing or vision impairments to a screening event at the Konkuk University branch of Lotte Cinema in eastern Seoul on Jan. 30 and showed its new sci-fi action film “Jung_E."

“I think it’s laudable that Netflix is doing this,” said Kim So-hee, a manager at a social cooperative for people with sensory impairments and one of the invitees to the barrier-free screening. She communicates using sign language. “I started using Netflix because I did not have a lot of opportunities to go to the cinema like I used to during the pandemic. I think any attempt by large content companies like Netflix to provide for people with impairments should be encouraged.”

Other guests, including educators from schools such as the Seoul National School for the Blind and the Seoul National School for the Deaf, were also present at the screening, along with others who were interested in the barrier-free program that Netflix had invited through an event on its social media channels.

Director Yeon Sang-ho and actors Kim Hyun-joo and Ryu Kyung-soo speak in sign language during a barrier-free screening of ″Jung_E″ at Lotte Cinema's Konkuk University branch in eastern Seoul on Jan. 30. [LIM JEONG-WON]

Before the screening of “Jung_E” began, the director and main cast of the film — Yeon Sang-ho, Kim Hyun-joo and Ryu Kyung-soo — came on stage and delivered a message to the audience, accompanied by sign language.

“I am so glad that we can show our movie to everyone here,” said Yeon, while a sign language interpreter assisted. Kim and Ryu both came prepared with short phrases in sign language and showed it to the audience amid applause.

“Their gestures were heartwarming,” Kim So-hee said in sign language. “I have never seen a screening where sign language interpreters are at hand and the cast members try to communicate directly to those of us who have impairments. This is a good step forward.”

Not everyone, however, was wholly impressed by the barrier-free screening or the choice to screen “Jung_E,” a sci-fi action film, for the program.

The director and main cast members of ″Jung_E″ speak on stage during a barrier-free screening of the film at Lotte Cinema's Konkuk Univeristy branch in eastern Seoul on Jan. 30. [YONHAP]

“I wonder how a barrier-free screening for other genres such as romance or drama would pan out,” said one audience member who requested anonymity. “I think for action films, it’s pretty straightforward — the subtitles and play-by-play narration can describe what’s happening directly because the action is just like sports. But what about describing scenes in films where there is room for subjective interpretation of what’s happening, and what about things like the subtleties of what is being delivered?”

When asked about the barrier-free programs for such different genres, Netflix replied that through its Audio Description Guidelines, which aim to “clearly convey the characteristics of each film and the intention of the creator,” such queries could be resolved.

How these Audio Description Guidelines are created and what they entail is unclear, but Netflix assures that constant feedback from relevant sources and the hearing and vision impaired community is being applied to each barrier-free project, as well as running barrier-free films through an inspection process before they are released.

“Programs such as these, whether they are called barrier-free or some other name, have been tried again and again in the past,” said the audience member for “Jung_E” who expressed doubts about barrier-free programs truly delivering a full-on experience for people with impairments. “I do think that it is significant that a company like Netflix is trying its hand at inviting all these people here and screening a barrier-free film. But I want to know whether these kinds of screenings will be held more frequently, and whether vision impaired people like me can no longer feel far from cinemas.”

Interest in barrier-free programs for people with hearing and vision impairments started around 2011. That year, two films opened both a regular screening and a barrier-free screening simultaneously in wide release theaters, while the Korean Barrier Free Films Committee (Kobaff) launched in 2012. Kobaff holds an annual barrier-free film festival, under the slogan “A film festival that everyone can enjoy together regardless of disability.”

However, barrier-free versions of films and dramas are still produced and released only after the regular or wide release, so those with impairments have to wait longer before they can enjoy the same works, often not being able to join in on discussions of recent hits and trends along with non-disabled masses.

“This experience with the screening of ‘Jung_E’ was special for me and an impressive experience because I was able to watch a Korean movie that has just been released in theaters,” said Kim. “That is very rare for me.”

It also takes up to 31 million won ($24,800) to produce a barrier-free version of an existing film, according to Kobaff. This means that for a barrier-free film to be produced and released following a regular film release, a separate production team and fund need to be allocated. It is often hard to find contributors and investors for such projects.

Many in the audience wished that barrier-free theaters themselves, not just barrier-free films, would be expanded.

“Barrier-free screenings are held regularly by the Korea Association for the Deaf, but the number of such screenings is small and there is less of a selection of films we want to see, and the time to watch films is also limited,” said Kim So-hee. “It would be nice if films could be provided so that people can freely choose the movies they want to watch and select the time slot too, rather than just screening movies by designation.”

Kim also hopes that barrier-free screenings will continue to be actively held at large venues as with the screening of “Jung_E,” and that stage greetings and previews of films could also be held.

“I look forward to a more active program expansion of barrier-free films,” said Kim.

The expansion of barrier-free films and screenings should not just be a hope, but should be guaranteed by the government and film industry, argues Lee Hwa-jin, professor of Korean Film Studies at Yonsei University Institute of Media Arts, in a paper titled "Toward Cinema for All People—Barrier-free Films and Cultural Civil Rights."

“Changes in the media environment, with the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, raise the issue of civil rights guarantees in which disabled people enjoy the right to simultaneously watch movies and comment on movies by participating in a common discourse, equally with non-disabled people,” writes Lee.

“The right to be part of the audience for Korean cinema for Korean deaf people, which has long been neglected, should also be considered as a cultural civil right that crosses the boundaries of language, nation and disability.”