Jurors for Sundance’s US Dramatic Competition walked out of the premiere of “Magazine Dreams” on Friday night over an incident in which the festival failed to provide adequate captioning for deaf and hearing impaired audience members — including juror Marlee Matlin.
Members of the dramatic jury — consisting of Jeremy O. Harris, Eliza Hittman and Matlin — decided to collectively walk out of the film as it began after a caption device provided to Matlin didn’t work. While the device was repaired hours later, it underscored a larger issue that has played out behind the scenes regarding the festival’s ability to make movies accessible to all viewers. The festival said the jurors intend to screen the film as a group before the festival’s end.
According to multiple sources, the jury has repeatedly expressed concerns to both Sundance and filmmakers that movies playing at this year’s festival should come with open captions. At other international festivals, including Cannes and Venice, movies are captioned in multiple languages on the screen. This year’s application for credentials to Sundance asked attendees if they needed access to captioning.
However, multiple sources state that several filmmakers have declined the request to provide open captions onscreen, citing the costs and time associated with making another print. Sources say that some buyers even suggested that including captions onscreen could somehow hurt the film’s asking prices on the market as they try to land distribution.
In the midst of the “Magazine Dreams” controversy, the jury sent a signed letter to festival filmmakers imploring them to allow “open caption DCP” prints to screen.
“We have all traveled to Utah to celebrate independent film and those who devote their lives to making them,” reads a copy of the letter that was obtained by Variety. “There’s a thrill to sit in a room with others who love films and cheer for them together and Sundance has been an important place for each of us to do that over our varied careers. The US independent cinema movement began as a way to make films accessible to everyone, not just those with the most privileges among us. As a jury our ability to celebrate the work that all of you have 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 provided a statement: “Our goal is to make all experiences (in person and online) as accessible as possible for all participants. Our accessibility efforts are, admittedly, always evolving and feedback helps drive it forward for the community as a whole.”
Sundance has gone to great lengths in the past to accommodate people with various disabilities as part of its stated mandate of inclusivity. This year, two ASL interpreters have accompanied festival leadership and filmmakers on stage for opening remarks and Q&A sessions following screenings.
In 2020, the festival ensured that “Crip Camp” co-director James Lebrecht, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, was able to attend major events, including the film’s premiere. Sources say the festival tried to work around the “Magazine Dreams” team’s refusal to provide captions and gave Matlin alternative technology, which malfunctioned. The premiere start time was delayed by 45 minutes. A source says the postponement was due to a technical issue, but it remains unclear if it was related to captioning.
It’s not immediately clear if other films will now allow for on-screen captioning after this mishap.
“Magazine Dreams” is directed by Elijah Bynum and centers on a Black amateur bodybuilder, played by Jonathan Majors, who struggles to find human connection.
Read the full statement from Sundance CEO Vicente:
“Our goal is to make all experiences (in person and online) as accessible as possible for all participants. Our accessibility efforts are, admittedly, always evolving and feedback helps drive it forward for the community as a whole.
“The screening device used to provide closed captions did not work at one of our Friday evening premieres. The jury left so that they could see it together at another time during the Festival. Our team immediately worked with the devices in that venue to test them again for the next screening and the device worked without any malfunction.
“Our team has done extraordinary work in this area, but there is always more work to do. We all still need to do more as we learn and consider the community at large.”