How One Movie Theater Has Led the Way on Hiring Staff With Disabilities

Courtesy of Prospector Theater
Employees at Ridgefield's Prospector Theater (and its gift cards).

Seventy-five percent of the staff of Connecticut's The Prospector Theater, which plans to open a new location next year, self-identify as having a disability.

After Parasite swept the Oscars in February, the team at the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut, began looking into how to become one of the 2,000 or more locations that received 2020's best picture winner. "There's been a lot of interest in that movie and a lot of people wanting to see [it]," says Ryan Wenke, the director of operations at the four-screen operation, located within a 10-minute drive from the New York state line, in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. The Prospector faced one problem, however, which didn't dissuade neighboring theaters, including a Bow Tie Cinema and Bethel Cinema: The film had no audio description — a soundtrack that narrates onscreen action for blind and low-vision people and includes dubbing — associated with it.

"Our stance is this: Look, if not everybody that walks into our theater can enjoy the movie, then we're not going to show it," Wenke says. (Though U.S. movie theaters are required by law to provide AD headsets, foreign-language films don't often come with audio description.) The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to distributor Neon for comment.

At a time when the representation of characters with disabilities is increasing slightly on TV and prominent film festivals are progressively attempting to provide a more accessible experience, the Prospector Theater is leading the way in showing how theaters of all kinds can better include people with disabilities, as patrons and employees. Seventy-five percent of the 130 employees at the nonprofit theater, which opened in November 2014, self-identify as having a disability, and the theater is structured around providing them meaningful jobs: Employees, called "Prospects," open the doors for patrons, make popcorn, plan events, project movies, produce prefilm ads and serve on the theater's board, among other roles. The theater itself features C-pen readers at the box office; accessible seating with prime viewing angles and integrated companion seating; sensory screenings; regularly tested and charged accessibility equipment like closed caption cup holder devices and descriptive headsets; Xbox adaptive controllers; Braille labelers and other modifications for accessibility. The theater additionally has welcomed over 10,000 students to meet employees, screen specific films and learn about inclusivity. (During THR's interview with theater management, a group of soon-to-be-graduates of Guiding Eyes for the Blind were watching the Harrison Ford-starring adaptation of Call of the Wild.)

Now, The Prospector — which has sold over 620,000 tickets since it opened in 2014 and doled out $11.5 million in payroll — is preparing to open a second theater in Wilton, Connecticut, at the end of 2021, and test its concept on a grander scale. If this first expansion works, the theater may open in more locations, all in a bid to spread employment opportunities, a more accessible moviegoing experience and the nonprofit's ethos to other entrepreneurs and exhibitors. "We want to lead by example so that we can be a global resource" for inclusive moviegoing and businesses that want to welcome more employees and clients or guests with disabilities, Mike "Munchie" Santini, the theater's director of research and development, says. "We want to work with those employers."

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Before Prospector Theater founder and executive director Valerie Jensen sought to open a movie theater, she wanted to found a business that would create fulfilling jobs for people with disabilities. In 2019, only 19.3 percent of people with a disability were employed, per the U.S. Department of Labor. "I wanted to create badass jobs that they absolutely would love, and so I thought to myself, 'What common thread or activity do a lot of my friends, with or without disabilities, love?' And movies was what I came up with," Jensen, a pink-haired current Ridgefield resident who grew up with a sister with Down syndrome, says. At the time, she was executive director of Sphere, a nonprofit in Ridgefield focused on recreation, education and arts opportunities for adults with disabilities. When she learned an abandoned 1930s-era movie house in town was set to be demolished, she purchased the site and renovated the theater with the help of about $30 million in private donations.

Jensen knew from the start that she wanted to have people with disabilities represented at every level of the operation. But after hiring her first team, she found that many employees were so "overqualified" that the theater had to create higher-level positions and entirely new teams — such as an embroidering team and a landscaping team — to maximize their abilities. "We were able to insource jobs that were previously outsourced and really make so many more higher-level jobs than we had anticipated or intended," she says. In addition to ticket sales, the theater relies on donations to make up its annual operating gap of $1.7 million to $2 million.

Still, Jensen notes that, for some of her employees, the theater is their first job, or the first that has allowed them independence. The Prospector currently pays its employees above Connecticut's minimum wage (which is $11 an hour), per Santini, and is ramping its employees up to $15 an hour before the state institutes that rate as its minimum wage in 2023. Twenty-six percent of employees are full time and receive benefits. "We've helped so many prospects get off of disability, move independently, be able to buy themselves groceries for the first time, be able to buy themselves clothes for the first time," she says. "These are mainly people in their 30s and 40s."

Keeping their theater accessible for patrons, as well as employees, with disabilities has required the leadership team to get creative. Managers have watched movies blindfolded with audio description headsets to gauge and improve the moviegoing experience for blind patrons. With closed-caption glasses, "The font is so small that it's almost impossible to read, and so Ryan [Wenke] and I tried to put magnifying glasses in, we were just trying to hack this together," Jensen says. "We actually went back to some older technology that had cupholders with the captions on it because that was more accessible than the newer technology." When the team has contacted companies producing accessibility equipment to ask about upgrades, Wenke and Jensen say they are often told the equipment is "stable," or in good condition. "The technology is not currently being developed, it's not being expanded," Wenke says, so they make do with the current models.

Leadership got interested in opening another theater after receiving a number of inquiries due to an appearance on NBC Nightly News in 2015. "Our phone has been ringing, emails coming in, everybody all over the world wanting a Prospector in their own town," Jensen says. After visiting several other locations, the Wilton location — a four-screen space currently occupied by Bow Tie Cinemas and in another decently sized town of around 18,000 people — struck Jensen and other theater leaders as the most promising. The Wilton and Ridgefield theaters are about 12 miles apart, a proximity that allows current employees to train new employees. The location is also spread out over one level, which allows for greater accessibility for patrons and employees. The theater is launching another capital campaign to help fund the Wilton location.

"Through this next venture, we're hoping to prove that, yes, the model is scalable, and then once we have that proof of concept, then it would be a goal to see what other opportunities are available," Santini says. "It would just have to be the right opportunity."

In the meantime, the flagship Prospector in Ridgefield welcomes business owners looking to learn from its model. Visitors have come from California, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, England, Spain and Korea to scope out the theater and its employment practices, Santini says. Theater managers particularly hope that other movie theaters take note of the Prospector's maintenance of accessibility equipment. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires specific numbers of wheelchair spaces, captioning and audio description equipment in movie theaters, depending on their seating capacity. Still, "unfortunately, in the rare occasions that you venture out to see a movie elsewhere, that equipment is not charged, it's not ready, employees of that theater don't know how to operate it, and unfortunately accessibility equipment has become an afterthought in this industry," Wenke says.

The leadership hopes these modifications and attention to detail will continue to distinguish The Prospector from its competition as attendance at movie theaters nationwide continues to decline. To further set the theater apart, Prospector employees create "engagement guides" for movies that cycle every two to three weeks, leading them to decorate the theater in new ways, add different video games, activities and/or new videos to the lobby, and don costumes. Tickets are slightly more expensive than the national average of $9.26 — $12 for adults, $10 for children and $10 for senior citizens, with prices dropping $2 for matinees — but Jensen says the mission resonates with patrons who frequent movie theaters and those who don't: "People will come and they will say, 'We will only go to Prospector Theater.'"

When it comes to both employing people with disabilities and paying special attention to disabilities, "this isn't just a nice thing to do. We love emphasizing that this is a smart thing to do, this is a business-savvy thing to do," Santini says. According to a 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, one in four U.S. adults has a disability. "That's a huge, huge market of moviegoers. That's a huge market of talented employees," Santini says.