Movies can transport the audience to different times and places. They may offer escape fantasy or highlight relevant history. They can entertain, inform and interpret our world in new ways.
But only if they are accessible.
For years, Emagine Entertainment has been offering moviegoers sensory-friendly and open-caption options to make movie theaters more accessible to more audiences. And Emagine’s Frankfort location is no exception; Four of August’s biggest movies are available with open captions, and two family-friendly movies are screened in a sense-friendly way.
But Emagine CEO Anthony LaVerde hopes these screenings are just a starting point, with the addition of a more robust list of offers across the company, with insights from those the theater chain hopes to welcome with private screenings. Most notably, it includes dementia-friendly screenings that the company is piloting at its Saline, Michigan location.
“We’re excited about this aspect of the business,” LaVerde said. “This is a new venture that we would like to see grow. We hope to expand this significantly as we learn to do it properly.”
Emagine isn’t the only company offering film screenings for people with special needs. Marcus Theater locations in Orland Park and Country Club Hills offer assistive technologies such as captioning devices, descriptive narration and assisted listening devices. AMC Theaters in New Lenox, Crestwood, and Chicago Ridge offer select sensory-friendly screenings, as well as closed captioning and assisted listening devices, while Crestwood also hosts open captioned screenings.
But Emagine is trying to expand into less mapped — if not explored — territory with its dementia-friendly displays. The company found that classics and musicals resonated better with these audiences through test screenings. Movies are delivered with softer sound and ambient lighting—the tweaks LaVerde says are due to community input as the company looks for other special offerings.
“When we make these available, we really need to get a lot of input and training from the community; exactly what needs to be done: sound levels, light levels, actual content on the screen,” he said. We take our time and try to present them really neatly. It’s amazing how we’ve been embraced by all these communities who want to see we succeed and do it the right way. Feedback is extremely important to get the job done right.”
During the dementia-friendly screenings, audiences are also encouraged to interact throughout the film, including talking, clapping, stamping, rocking, singing and dancing together. This is similar to a sensory-friendly experience where the lights are turned on and the sound is turned down a bit, along with the encouragement to move, dance, and sing.
“Kids can talk and be themselves throughout the movie,” LaVerde said.
Sensory screenings also allow guests to bring safe snacks for any food allergies, avoidances or restrictions. The aim is to make sensory-friendly screenings comfortable so that families with sensory needs can still have a shared cinema experience. Otherwise, these experiences can be particularly stressful for parents, LaVerde said.
“This is really based on feedback from people who know their needs much better than we do, and we try to accommodate them,” LaVerde said, adding that the company is happy to hear from nearby bands about what theater can do. doing it to meet their needs. “We are always open to that and we are always learning.”
The sensory-friendly and open-captioned screenings (the latter displaying audio captions on the big screen) focus on new releases. These screenings take place on specific days and times, but LaVerde said they’ve been “extremely successful,” meaning Emagine is able to offer more movie options.
“The more scans we can provide to these communities, the better,” LaVerde said. “We are excited as they embrace Emagine and their efforts to develop their experience with their expertise.”
Dementia-friendly screenings, including pre-show fusion, offer guests door-to-door service, guided by a team of staff and volunteers, whom Emagine calls the “Purple Angels.” Training teams to be dementia friendly is one of the reasons Emagine’s business is moving forward.
“You want to make sure that cinema-level staff are trained on all the right things that are provided to us by the community, like light levels, sound levels, etc,” LaVerde said.
The training and expertise services offered don’t necessarily have to be cheap, but LaVerde said money wasn’t the driving force behind these expertise demonstrations.
“I wouldn’t say we run a dementia-friendly business for profit, but certain aspects of our business are not always driven solely by profit,” he said. “Being able to give something to the community and offer something unique – when done right with contributions from people who truly have expertise – means a lot to us. … It’s the heart of our culture that we don’t like to take from the community; we like to give back.”
In addition to special screenings for specific needs, Emagine also tries out Breakfast & A Movie and Senior Lunch & A Movie screenings at some locations. The first offers an early morning buffet with movies selected for families, and the second offers a lunch buffet.
A single location Dine N’ View option delivers a full-service restaurant experience from where you sit. A top-of-the-line movie lineup at two locations, including Batavia, offers a one-off ticket, drinks, popcorn, and hot dogs, along with an hour of post-movie fusion to keep things simple. LaVerde said that these screenings were similarly developed based on guest feedback and the goal was to welcome everyone in Emagine cinemas.
“We are trying to deliver a truly exemplary out-of-home experience,” he said.
Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.