Independent movies have been a part of Ithaca’s history since the inception of cinema, with many filmmakers moving to Central New York to produce their newest masterpieces as early as 1915. Now, a local moviegoing staple is trying to bring Ithaca residents back to the movies in a more accessible way.
American cinemas as a whole have survived numerous challenges, including the advent of home video and the boom of streaming. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hesitancy to sit in a closed space with a group of people for two or more hours, theaters are struggling. In an effort to bring in some hesitant, prospective moviegoers, Cinemapolis in Downtown Ithaca has implemented two new accessibility–focused initiatives, being “Masked Tuesdays,” where attendees are required to wear a mask and concessions are take-out only, and “Open Captioned Wednesdays,” offering on-screen captions for all screens.
This is the first major decision by Kate Donohue, the newest executive director of Cinemapolis. Accessibility is at the forefront of her plans for the theater, Donohue said. She, alongside the employees at Cinemapolis, have found that this was what moviegoers were hoping for. Donohue even said many of the staff advocated for the Open Captioned screenings prior to the decision to make the switch to include open captions on all screenings one day per week. These initiatives are just the first step in Donohue’s plans to push for a more accessible theatergoing experience.
“The staff was the one that championed the Open Captioned screenings at first, that was in place before I started,” Donohue said. “But we’re really open to making the experience the best we can for moviegoers.”
Donohue said she wants to get the theater back to the levels of attendance that the organization was seeing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Donohue said that although attendance rates have increased since the theater reopened back in summer 2020, they have not reached the same heights as they were before they shut down.
These initiatives are not being enacted in a vacuum; theater attendees are impacted by this decision as well. This announcement has excited Ithaca College sophomores August Van Der Werf and Ryan Williams-Abrams, who both said they go to Cinemapolis on a regular basis. Van Der Werf said he believes these are good initiatives to have in place for those who need accessibility.
“I’m someone who still wears my mask,” Van Der Werf said. “I know that’s not really what most people are doing anymore, so it might be a shift for them, but masking is something I do anyway.”
Williams-Abrams is happy that Cinemapolis is taking the issue of accessibility in stride. He said he thinks this will contribute to creating a welcoming and healthy moviegoing environment for everyone.
“There is still a pandemic going on, after all,” Williams-Abrams said. “It really can’t hurt anyone to be safe about things.
Van Der Werf said he turns on closed captions almost anytime he watches something on a streaming service and is excited to see them be available on the big screen. Although closed caption devices are available for nearly any show at Cinemapolis, Williams-Abrams said he prefers to look at the screen, rather than switching back and forth between the assistive device and the projection. The goal with the Open Captioned screenings is to allow moviegoers to do just that.
“I almost always use captions when I’m watching something on one of my devices, and I think many people do, too,” Williams-Abrams said. “I think it’s just a win-win for everyone”
Theaters like Cinemapolis are also taking into account the opinions of people who have not been to a theater since before COVID-19. Senior Stephanie Fine said that as someone who still regularly masks in public and is a frequent user of captions on streaming services, these initiatives are definitely a step in the right direction, although she doesn’t go to the movies very much.
“I don’t go to see movies in a theater often, but I would probably pick Cinemapolis over another theater,” Fine said. “It’s important to me that people are safe and comfortable, so I’m glad they’re doing this.”
Donohue said she, members of the Board of Directors at Cinemapolis and the staff are all open to listening to the community and continuing to improve the Ithaca area’s experiences at Cinemapolis. Donohue said this was how they decided to formally launch these initiatives, which will hopefully continue on and be a resource for those in the community.
“We’re committed to making the moviegoing experience as accessible as possible,” Donohue said.