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Bay Area Historic Movie Theaters Move Towards Greater Accessibility

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Movie fan Angela Chan poses in front of the Roxie Theater before checking out the venue's new ADA upgrades on her way to a screening. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Angela Chan hardly misses a film at the Roxie Theater, even though she takes public transportation all the way from where she lives in Millbrae to get to the San Francisco Mission District venue.

“When you get a membership, you’re going to want to see more than two movies a month,” the avid moviegoer says, crossing 16th Street on the way to catch a screening of Kid Candidate as part of the Roxie’s DocFest programming. “And patron members get free popcorn.”

Chan is legally blind, and because she has scoliosis, she uses a walker. So she’s thrilled to discover the theater’s shiny new wheelchair-accessible door, which glides open at the push of a big button. She’s also happy the Roxie remodeled its formerly wheelchair-inaccessible bathroom.

“It’s huge,” she says. “And everything’s white, so it’s easy to see.”

One of the pandemic’s few silver linings is that it gave some of the Bay Area’s shuttered historic movie theaters, like the Roxie, the time and space to undertake much-needed accessibility upgrades. For these older theaters, built long before current codes, making the moviegoing experience more welcoming for the 23% of adults in California who live with a disability has been a long time coming.

Accessibility Nightmare

“There was a time in which myself as a wheelchair user could not get into many theaters at all,” says Oakland-based film director and sound designer Jim LeBrecht, who’s in his mid-60s. “Maybe they would allow me to sit in the aisle, but I was a fire hazard. Or maybe when I was a younger guy I was able to transfer to a seat, and then my wheelchair was stashed somewhere else.”


Together with Nicole Newnham, LeBrecht wrote, directed and co-produced the Oscar-nominated movie Crip Camp, which tells the story of a group of disabled teens—LeBrecht among them—whose memorable experiences at a summer camp in the early 1970s sparked a nationwide surge in disability rights activism.

LeBrecht says his moviegoing experience has steadily improved since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. But he sees compliance with the ADA as “a floor, not a ceiling.” 

This poses a challenge for historic theaters, built decades before the establishment of ADA codes. Many are in constant need of other more pressing repairs, and, as small local businesses, they’ve traditionally been held less accountable for complying with accessibility laws, LeBrecht says.

“Some have really not done much of anything, saying that the cost is so great, they are not obligated under the law,” LeBrecht says. Another common argument from historic theaters is that making accessibility upgrades would destroy their historic architecture.

Historic Theaters Step It Up

But things are changing. More owners and managers of historic theaters are seeing the value of making their spaces more inclusive, and finding the funds to follow through.

“There’s a huge audience out there that wants to come to the movies,” says the Roxie’s executive director Lex Sloan, who used the majority of a $150,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to make accessibility upgrades to the 108-year-old venue. “And so let’s make sure that we have what they need to feel comfortable here.”

Lex Sloan, executive director of the Roxie, demonstrates the new ADA door. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

“We feel that that’s sort of a social responsibility of a business, and wherever possible needs to be achieved,” says Allen Michaan, owner and operator of Oakland’s 95-year-old Grand Lake Theatre. Michaan says he’s used business profits steadily over the years to make upgrades, like adding more seats for wheelchair users in prime spots.

Meanwhile, over in Marin County, the Lark Theater in Larkspur, opened in 1940, is making its existing ADA bathrooms and lobby concession counters more wheelchair-friendly with funds from a capital campaign and a private donor. “It’s very important that we do this,” says the Lark’s executive director Ellie Mednick. “We have had people with disabilities come to our theater for a long time, and have always asked how we can improve.” The theater began these renovations a few months ago and plans to reopen in October.

Some Lag Behind

But some historic Bay Area theaters are lagging behind—notably San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, which was built in 1922.

“All sorts of people with disabilities have been saying, ‘Look, we can’t access half the theater. It’s not available to us,'” says Catherine Kudlick, who directs the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, which hosts Superfest, touted as “the world’s longest running disability film festival.”

Kudlick is among several people interviewed for this story who want the famed San Francisco movie palace to make a variety of accessibility upgrades, including providing more desirable seating options for wheelchair users, implementing audio description and closed captioning technology for people who are hearing or sight impaired, and making the stage and mezzanine accessible to people who can’t climb stairs.

“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” says Kudlick. “The problem is you’ve got to get people to the point where they need to be willing to do this.”

The Castro Theatre at night. The theatre has been closed since March due to coronavirus restrictions.
The Castro Theatre. (Castro Theatre/Facebook)

“The Castro is a wonderful theater, the absolute centerpiece of our cinematic community, and I appreciate it deeply,” says filmmaker LeBrecht. “But it is a horrible place for me to go see a movie.”

Working Toward Improvements

LeBrecht and Kudlick are part of a Disability Advisory Board set up three years ago by SFFILM, which hosts many San Francisco  International Film Festival screenings and other events throughout the year at the Castro, among other local venues. The board’s initiatives, with the help of funding from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, include improving accessibility at historic movie theaters, supporting filmmakers with disabilities, and increasing access to closed captioning and audio description both for digital and in-person film events.

LeBrecht says his group is helping SFFILM work with its partner venues, including the Castro, to address accessibility issues. 

The Castro’s general manager, Steve Nasser, says he’s committed to addressing their concerns, though he’s vague on specifics and a timeline at this stage.

“You know, we’re looking at a variety of options, is what I would say,” Nasser says. “Our architect and historical consultants have met with the city.”

The Audio Description Challenge

Even theaters that have embraced accessibility can’t always create the most optimal experience for disabled customers.

The Roxie, for example, has a stock of closed captioning and audio description devices. Small closed captioning boxes, for people who have trouble hearing, fit in seat cupholders with text captions showing up on the boxes’ screens. Audio description, for patrons who are sight-impaired, is provided through headphones. A voice describes the action unfolding on the movie theater screen.

But these devices are mostly only useful to visually and hearing impaired filmgoers if the films on view are outfitted with closed captioning and audio descriptions. And making a film caption- and audio description-ready is the responsibility of the filmmaker or film distributor. (Sloan adds a caveat that audio headsets have a setting which will increase the loudness of any film’s basic audio track, so this can help some people who have trouble hearing, even if the film itself doesn’t come with audio description. But it’s not much help to people who can’t see very well.)

An audio description headset. (Lex Sloan)

The Roxie’s screening of indie documentary Kid Candidate didn’t come with audio description. So film buff and Roxie member Chan had to sit in the very front row to follow the action on screen and the post-show Q&A with the director.

“Big studio films have the money to provide that kind of service,” Chan says. “Independent films and foreign films generally won’t have that available.”

Closed captioning is now legally required and can be done cheaply, or even for free using automated speech-to-text technology. So films with captioning are fairly ubiquitous these days. Movies with audio description are much less prevalent.

The Longmore Institute’s Kudlick, who is vision impaired, says audio description is more hands-on and subjective. “Someone has to decide what to describe, so it’s more complex and pricey to produce. It’s also still more niche and in its infancy as a service, so a lot of folks don’t know about it.”

According to data provided to KQED by the Rainin Foundation via email, audio description costs $20-$30 per minute. Captioning costs around $4 per minute.

But Kudlick’s colleague, Longmore Institute associate director Emily Beitiks, says indie filmmakers shouldn’t be let off the hook for providing audio description because of budget size. She says more of them are starting to include the service as part of the basic package that goes along with their films. “They write it into grants or get reduced costs from access providers who want to see these titles provided with access,” Beitiks says.

Accessibility For All

Filmmaker LeBrecht says the movie industry is starting to understand that accessibility isn’t just about meeting the needs of a niche group or fulfilling legal requirements.

There is this shift, finally, of support and validation for the disabled community that we have been fighting for for years,” he says.

Also, LeBrecht points out, the mere act of aging comes with accessibility needs.

“If you are fortunate enough to live long enough, you are going to start experiencing things with your body that are going to make it more difficult for you to access a cinema or just society in general without some kind of accommodation,” LeBrecht says.

So the more that movie theaters prioritize accessibility, the more moviegoers they can reach.

“There’s an audience out there!” LeBrecht says. “They spend money in your theater!”



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