I cover my fair share of film festivals and I’m in a privileged position to do so. One of the few job perks of being a critic is attending festivals, but for me there’s a higher priority at play. I travel with a wheelchair and as a disabled critic I make it a point to use my job as a means of letting others know how accessible an event is, to hopefully foster more people with disabilities to take a chance and enjoy something without the stress of wondering if they’ll be able to navigate it. The TCM Classic Film Festival is one of the more handicap friendly events to go to, and is a great start for anyone wanting to navigate the festival world (and see some great movies, too). Here are the things I wish more people had shared with me and I hope others with disabilities, limited mobility, deaf/blind, etc. might find some benefits in my knowledge. And if you have an accessibility question I don’t cover, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!
Hollywood Boulevard is an entirely different world, and to the uninitiated it’s a bit of a culture shock. People dress in costume, others peddle their wares, and if you want to avoid a confrontation don’t accept anything. The homeless are generally harmless but regularly present, more so as the evening comes on. The mornings tend to be the best time to get out and about as the streets are less congested, but around the afternoon you’re looking at being jostled a fair bit, and the denizens of the boulevard don’t always look where they’re going. The main drag runs from the Roosevelt Hotel down to the Egyptian, so expect the bulk of TCMFF crowds to congregate there. Once you pass the Egyptian, if you’re staying at the W Hotel, prep to run into a heavy amount of people traffic, particularly on the weekend. That area is what I’ve infamously dubbed “Club Row” and has people lining up to enter bars and clubs about 6pm. It’s a great place to feel safe from about 6pm-9pm but if you’re walking back from a midnight show it is frighteningly empty and seedy.
If you’re traveling with a wheelchair or cane you’ll want to look closely at the ground. The area of the main drag – from the Roosevelt to the Hollywood Museum/Ripley’s – has relatively smooth curb cuts between intersections with minor cracks. You won’t get tripped up crossing the street. Going beyond that, to the Egyptian and Larry Edmunds for instance, several sidewalks are ridiculously cracked and broken. If you’re using a wheelchair prep to have help crossing or going slowly.
This year the festival is doing events at the Legion Theater at Post 43. To get here you’ll have to veer left and leave the boulevard, navigating up a heavily steep hill that I know I wasn’t able to do on my own. I stayed near the Legion Theater my first TCMFF and while it’s a great quick slide down that hill in the morning, it’s hell at night. Also, the area is incredibly removed from things and terribly lit. The homeless do open sleep out here and there are several dark alleys close-by to the point that I’d recommend anyone going up here to travel with a group, and that’s regardless of ability. Since it’s been so long since I’ve been up there I can’t speak to whether the sidewalks are smooth.
The law stipulates that all the theaters must be ADA compliant, but the retrofitting does leave those traveling with wheelchairs or canes in a bit of a situation. If you’re seeing a movie at the TCL Chinese Theater or Egyptian the ramps down to the handicap seats are perilously steep. I physically can’t go up or down them myself, so if you’re traveling with a manual chair prepare yourself. The Egyptian also, to me at least, has the fewest handicap seats. There’s room for at least 2 wheelchairs on each side of the floor seats and a few spaces in the upper level. The TCL has more spaces. The Chinese Multiplex within the Highland Center is perfect and easy to navigate with several spaces for wheelchairs. I do say if you’re short and seeing a movie at the Egyptian, sitting in the front does afford you a better view of the screen though a pretty terrible view of the guests. Both the TCL and Chinese have the handicap seats in one area so you have a great overall view of the screen and guests, though you are unable to sit close in either venue.
As far as the process goes to get into a theater, TCM still hasn’t taken me up on my idea of separating the handicap patrons into a line and allowing them first entry, considering how few seats are in the theaters. In years past there’s also been confusion about where disabled patrons should go once in line. In years past I’ve seen staff members pluck disabled patrons out of line to wait near the doors, other years I get told to wait in the main line like everyone else. If you’re concerned about getting an accessible seat the best technique is to arrive early and ask a staff member where you should go. And don’t afraid to go on Twitter and poke the TCM peeps if the handicap access isn’t being handled right. The folks here really want to make the process efficient and like to know if things are going wrong.
You also have Club TCM within the Roosevelt Hotel as its own venue. I have a love/hate relationship with Club TCM as its probably the most handicap unfriendly area of the festival. The site of the first Academy Awards is ridiculously small. Add in a lot of side tables, display cases, and chairs for events and you have a notoriously cramped space. Chairs can be moved if you’re in a wheelchair and want to sit for a panel, but getting in and out is tricky without asking people to move and bumping into things. If you sit in the front, don’t expect to get up and leave mid-presentation as there are often people standing all around and only one pair of exit doors.
In the earlier years of the festival there used to be back doors that exited out to the pool, giving guests a quick out, but these have been locked every fest I’ve attended for the last four years. If you’re attending a poolside screening plan to get there early! Getting access to the pool with a wheelchair requires you to go down to the front desk and asking to use their rickety old elevator. There also isn’t designated handicap seating as chairs can be moved so if you want a comfy deck chair you gotta stake it out at least 90 minutes ahead of time (two hours is better).
This is the section I didn’t want to write because I don’t have an answer, but it needs to be said. As far as I know there is no method of presenting closed captioning on any of the films. If someone knows otherwise please let me know and I’ll update this, but as far as I’m aware I’ve never seen a closed caption device used by any patrons. Also, there aren’t sign language interpreters at any of the panels and I don’t even know how you’d request one. This is the most frustrating thing because I’m sure there are plenty of deaf patrons who’d love to attend, but a key component of a film festival is actually knowing what the movies are saying.
Well, there you have it. This is all the knowledge I wish I had known going to the festival, but it’s by no means comprehensive nor will it work for everyone. I hope everyone has a great time at TCMFF this year, regardless of ability.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.