Breaking the Language Barrier: New apps facilitate movie soundtracks for Non-English speakers

Features
Technology

Put on your Theater Ears or tune in to myLINGO to listen to that new hit film’s soundtrack in Spanish, or—further down the development road—in any language that movie dialogue is dubbed in, worldwide. Gone are the days of subtitles, (hopefully) hushed and whispered translations from your seat-side neighbor and/or skipping the movie altogether because you do not understand what is going on.

Theater Ears allows moviegoers to download the Spanish-language track to their mobile devices and play it back in perfect sync while watching the film on the big screen. Available for iPhone and Android and delivered via one’s own headphone, the app was first tested with The Space Between Us, which is appropriately enough a film that bridges another, even bigger gap. Theater Ears are all geared up and opening again for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Many ideas for improvement come from personal experience. And good products usually follow when someone is committed to making a difference. The story of how an orthodontist came up a new way to enhance moviegoing—and bring more moviegoers to the show—is no different. It’s curious, nonetheless, that Boca Raton, Florida-based Dr. Larry Kawa, who usually deals with teeth, came up with Theater Ears. As is often the case, he acted on behalf of his wife, according to the official company history (theaterears.com/english). Among the fondest times Virginia Kawa had growing up in Cali, Colombia, were attending the movies with her mother. But living in Florida today, as someone who is not fluent in English, Mom would stay home when everybody else went out to see a new film.

Although that same background information admits that Larry wanted “to win the Son-in-Law of the Year Award,” and lacked any experience in app development, Dr. Kawa “set off on a journey to solve this problem for his family,” the origin story continues. “From putting together the core technology team to creating relationships with the major motion picture studios, Larry has set up Theater Ears with one idea in mind: bringing his whole family to the movies, regardless of language.”

In a similar fashion, two siblings from Greenwich, Connecticut, who grew up in a predominantly Polish-speaking household, came up with the myLINGO app. Adam Polak and Olenka Polak could not enjoy going to the cinema together as a family, because their parents were non-native English speakers. For more details about myLINGO, please refer to our sidebar summary.

Both myLINGO and Theater Ears rely on receiving the official alternate-language tracks as commissioned by the studio and distribution on behalf of the filmmakers. Unlike a spoken or simultaneous translation, moviegoers “get a full experience,” explains Dan Mangru, chief executive officer of Theater Ears. Instead of mixing the dialogue track with the physical theatre sound and surrounds, “the Theater Ears experience is designed so that you are fully immersed as you enjoy the movie on the big screen.”

Technically speaking, “our service is a media synchronization service.” Mangru explains, correcting that “common misnomer of translating the movie in real time.” Moviegoers download the file onto their mobile devices before coming to the theatre. Once seated, guests “initiate the sync sequence by pushing a button just like you would to play a song,” Mangru explains. “After about 30 seconds of listening to the movie,” the Theater Ears app “will sync to that exact point and start playing the foreign-language track right into your ear.” The best part, he says, is that no other connections are needed for playback. As everything is “housed on the device, we do not need any Internet connection… You do not need Wi-Fi or LTE connections to enjoy a movie from start to finish.” And thanks to geo-fencing technology, the enjoyment continues during a possible trip to the restroom. “As long as you stay within the theatre, the track will be playing on your phone,” he assures, “even if you want to get more popcorn.”

What happens when guests leave? The soundtrack is copyrighted material after all, bringing back bad memories of DTS CD disks being pirated to provide crystal-clear sound on stolen movies. “Theater Ears takes digital piracy very seriously,” Mangru states, understanding the concern. “We made some significant innovations when it comes to digital media management and…created technology surrounding the management of the content. We deploy a feature known as destructive morphing. If you think of an audio file as an egg,” he proposes, “what is typically done is to delete the audio file. If somebody does forensic and so forth, they can find out and pull that egg back together.” At Theater Ears, they crack the audio file instead. “We scramble the eggs and then we delete them. So, even if somebody were to forensically pull any type of data or information, they would never be able to put back together the original. This works in addition to encryption and watermarking technology that we use, and a few other security measures that are in place. It is all designed to make sure that the experience is only for its desired purpose: watching the movie inside the movie theatre on a single-use basis… You can only use it once. You do not have ownership over that file.” Or should that be egg?

Filmmakers and producers are happy to hear that, Mangru knows. “We license the soundtracks from the studios and that represents really the only limit to the amount of languages that our service can be provided in.” Working with Spanish-language versions made for the Latin American marketplace has proven a good starting point. But the opportunities seem endless when thinking about Germany and Austria, where all films are dubbed and you need to live in a large city to see the English-language original version; and France and Italy, where local-language versions are always more prevalent and successful, not only for children’s film.

“We see a huge market in the European Union, especially with the free movement of people there,” Mangru concurs. “Current estimates are that over 40 million people in the EU are living in a country where people do not speak their native language.” He provides another example that makes the case for watching a dubbed version. “Let’s say I am originally from France but living in Germany for work, and I prefer listening to movies in my native French. You can see this not only throughout all the different European countries, but also as we start getting into other markets, such as China and India, of course. There are over 25 languages and dialects in India alone, and that is actually a big factor in whether films do well there or not.”

Having secured collaboration with STX Entertainment for the previously mentioned films (“We are actually very grateful to them”), and starting a new relationship with Sony Pictures, the rest of the studios are following suit, Mangru observes. “We have been in various stages of discussions with all of them and gotten a very good response. So, we feel we have good relationships with every studio out there. They have been really great to work with, especially having a technology that is new and embracing something different. How these studios have really come to embrace what we are doing is really terrific.”

Mangru is also “seeing right now more of a willingness from studios to really dub their movies into many languages. That just means we are going to have more product available.” And more support for the underlying business model. When fully operational, moviegoers would be charged for each soundtrack file that they download and Theater Ears anticipates working on a revenue/profit-sharing basis when licensing from the studios. “For now, as we continue to develop what we would call our beta phase, we will be having the movies and providing them on a complimentary basis. But, once we are fully commercialized, you will be looking at a $0.99 iTunes-type file model.”

The benefits for exhibition include higher attendance, Mangru knows. “We really see Theater Ears as a service offer that increases revenue at the box office. We want to create innovative marketing partnerships with exhibition so that everybody can win… Being able to bring more of those customers that do not speak a given language to the box office will drive more concessions, will drive more activity. We feel that is really the win-win for us at this point.”

Equally winning is the fact that no special equipment and hardware are needed on the theatre side. “There is no implementation. It is more about marketing and public relations, being able to get the word out,” Mangru opines, “letting them know about what exists in the marketplace now and then being able to move the turnstiles and get people inside theatres.”

myLINGO is a similar app that is in the marketplace as well. “We believe that we have the best sync accuracy,” Mangru asserts. Along with digital security, “we take very tough measures,” he guarantees. “We are positively striving to make it even better and looking at new ways to really push the envelope. We feel that quality is our number-one objective in terms of our product and that is how we have always approached Theater Ears.” That said, “competition is always very healthy, so we look forward to a furious competition with myLINGO or whoever enters this arena.” In fact, he contends this to be “further validation that there is a real need for this service in the marketplace. The end goal and objective are to make sure that all people can experience movies just like you and I can… Anything that we can do to break barriers to moviegoing, whether from language or regarding solutions for Americans with disabilities, that is what we are really interested in—breaking barriers to moviegoing and working with distribution and exhibition on making those things happen.”

Theater Ears already has been working on accessibility solutions for assisted listening and descriptive narration, but “it is not something that we have rolled out with the studios.” Mangru sees the app-based approach as an enhancement and add-on, initially, to existing systems. For someone to use his or her own device, “I think just democratizes the process and it gives people a choice.” Instead of using the theatre-provided equipment, which “makes you stand out from everybody else,” extended Theater Ears would allow people “to use the more stylish or over-the-ear headphones, higher-end devices. They are within rights to do so and have the power to do so.”

Closing on a personal note, Mangru appreciates “how well I have been embraced within the film community and how open they are to our efforts and what we are doing. And I really like it. I have learned that once you fall in love with this industry, you really never go back and I can definitely see that.” Now listen to that!

Delivering Your Lingo

This past holiday season, moviegoers at Regal Cinemas and Cinemark Theatres nationwide had the opportunity to hear Moana belt out her empowering songs in Spanish and listen to Passengers converse about their viaje intergaláctico. Rogue One and Office Christmas Party were additional titles with dubbed soundtracks available via a synchronized smart-phone app for iPhone and Android. Beauty and the Beast, Life and Power Rangers had been added to the lineup at press time.

myLINGO, a “developer of technologies to enhance the movie theatre experience for multicultural families,” was founded in 2012 by siblings Adam Polak and Olenka Polak. In 2015, the company closed its Series A funding in which Dolby Laboratories participated. “Hispanic audiences spent approximately $2.5 billion at the box office in 2015, proving a big incentive for cinemas to cater to this market segment,” Olenka Polak noted back in December. “Even so, our research shows that nearly half of all Spanish-dominant Americans avoid going to the movies because films aren’t shown in Spanish. myLINGO addresses that challenge as a partner to both studios and exhibitors, with an innovative way to drive new customers and revenue.”

In terms of security features, the company assures that myLINGO audio files only play if the app can hear the film sound through the phone’s microphone. Once the movie has ended, “the file self-deletes” from the device. A proprietary algorithm assures proper synchronization. “To avoid interfering with others’ enjoyment of the film,” the app is dimly lit and transitions to a completely black screen after being fully synced. While the alternate audio can only be heard through earphones, of course, “it won’t play through the smartphone’s speakers even if the earphones become accidentally unplugged.”

 

Going forward, myLINGO intends to “shatter communication barriers all over the world.” By supporting several languages in addition to Spanish, myLINGO will also cater to “those outside the country who want to watch a movie in its original language,” and provide a solution “even for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.”