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Creating Inclusive Movie Experiences: Philadelphia Film Society's Sensory-Friendly Showings

a closeup of a pair of hands holding a clapperboard in the desert

September 21, 2023

The Philadelphia Film Society (PFS) shines as a beacon of cinematic exploration and community enrichment in the heart of Philadelphia's vibrant arts and culture scene. Beyond the glitz and glamour of traditional movie screenings, PFS has embarked on a heartwarming mission to make the magic of cinema accessible to everyone, including those with sensory sensitivities. Through their innovative sensory-friendly showings, PFS has carved out a space where lights are dim, sounds are softened, and shushing is a thing of the past. In this blog post, we dive into the story behind this remarkable initiative, learn what makes these screenings unique, and hear inspiring tales of individuals whose movie going experiences have been forever transformed. Join us as we explore how PFS fosters inclusivity and expands the horizons of cinema lovers of all ages.

Q: Can you provide an overview of the Philadelphia Film Society's initiative to create sensory-friendly showings? What was the motivation behind starting this program?

A: Yes, we actually did a few sensory friendly screenings pre-covid when we were at the Roxy. It was very important to the team, but fell away in the transition to new spaces and during covid. It’s been on our radar for a while, but through our partnership with SpArc we started discussing what access for their members would look like. In spring of 2022 we organized the first sensory friendly screening for THE INCREDIBLES here at the PFC. Because of the success, and our team’s interest, we brought in an advocate and started organizing monthly curated screenings, but primarily geared toward kids. Over time we saw an appetite for adults as well, and we now are doing first run screenings.

Q: What exactly does a "sensory-friendly showing" entail? How does it differ from a traditional movie screening?

A: There are a few technical changes: lights in the theater are dimly lit, the sound levels are lowered, the frequency is condensed so there's no huge variations in sound throughout the film. A big part is it's a “no shush” zone. People can respond however they need to: moving out of seats, vocalization, and we create a quiet space for people to go to outside the theater so they can go there to decompress and return quickly. We also offer ear plugs.

Q: Who is the target audience for these sensory-friendly showings? Are they primarily designed for individuals with sensory sensitivities, or are they open to everyone?

A: Open to everyone. They are designed around the needs of people with sensory sensitivities, but we’ve found it creates access for other groups as well. For example, parents with young children and anyone who may have sensitivity triggers with the films.

Q: Can you share some heartwarming or inspiring stories from individuals or families who have attended these sensory-friendly showings? How has this initiative impacted their movie going experience?

A: We’ve had some people say they’ve never been to a movie in theaters before we came out. Favorite story: During THE INCREDIBLES we had tons of families with young kids and one adult man who came alone and seemed shy before the event. After he told us he had PTSD, and going to theaters was hard for him, but the accommodations and the model of it being a relaxed space allowed him to return.

Q: In what ways do you measure the success of the sensory-friendly showings? Are there specific metrics or feedback mechanisms that you rely on?

A: Success is often how many people are able to come out to the showings. We want these films to be accessible to as many people as possible. Also, people who come back again. We have very good feedback that we’re responsive to customer service emails and front of house staff, and we’ve gotten feedback that people are excited to have this option.

Q: What advice would you give to other organizations or groups looking to implement similar sensory-friendly initiatives in their communities?

A: I would say, one of the most important things is remembering that every time you make an experience more accessible, you make it better for everyone; not just your intended audience. Give it time. Don’t just try it once, it takes time to let people to spread that this is a sensory friendly space.

Q: Can you share any upcoming events or developments related to the sensory-friendly showings that readers should be aware of?

A: Every Tuesday open captions and check back each month for the Sunday sensory friendly title.

Q: Lastly, how can individuals who are interested in attending or supporting the Philadelphia Film Society's sensory-friendly showings get involved or learn more?

Get involved: we’re a member supported theater and we communicate with our members frequently. Membership affords discounts, and access to our work in addition to support. To learn more: about our community offerings, discounts, school and college programs, subscribe to our quarterly community newsletter.