The power of cinema

Films without barriers — this is Seneit Debese's mission. She developed the two apps "Greta" and "Starks" which make a trip to the movies a matter of course for the blind and deaf. She won not only the KfW Entrepreneurs' Award for these apps, but also captured the hearts of the audience.


How the “Greta” und “Starks” apps let the blind and deaf experience films at the movie theatre (KfW Group/n-tv). This video is only available in German.

The overcast December day in 2013 is an exciting premiere for Seneit Debese. As she takes the stage of the crowded Berlin movie theatre, half of the guests can't hear her, and the other half can't see her. Sticks for the blind lean against the red armchairs. People vitalk with their hands three rows back. Everyone has a smart phone in their hand. Exactly the audience that the start-up entrepreneur wants in the cinema.

Seneit Debese presents her mobile apps: the Greta app describes what's happening on screen during gaps in the dialogue. The visually impaired or blind wear a headset to hear these audio versions known as "audio descriptions". The Starks app provides synchronised subtitles and also describes the sounds in the film. This enables the hearing impaired to follow the film.

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Will the blind and deaf become film fans with these apps? A representative of the association for the blind and visually impaired is standing next to Seneit Debese on stage. He doesn't hide his scepticism. The film that is supposed to change his mind is called "Imagine". It tells the story of a blind teacher who rejects the use of a cane and breaks with all sorts of conventions to live the life he wants. Just like Seneit Debese, who fought for her idea with a lot of energy. The enthusiastic feedback from the audience after the credits roll validates her efforts. The first step in barrier-free cinema has been taken.

Marketing with passion

Andres Schüpbach puts a lot of energy into growing the company – and learning sign language.

Seneit Debese, who was born in Eritrea and grew up in Germany, describes herself as having a "flair for marketing with a social mission". She was introduced to the film industry working as a controller at a film distributor. She then started her own distribution company for independent films, liaised with sponsors and produced reports. The turning point came when she worked on the profile of a blind runner from Eritrea who leads a very independent life, but is excluded from cinema culture. "I couldn't stop thinking about it. I wondered whether there could be a market for a software-based solution. And because I knew how useful smart phones are for the blind, I knew it had to be an app," remembers Ms Debese.

All modern mobile phones have a voiceover function. When this function is enabled, everything written on the screen is spoken. The phone says who is calling or reads emails or timetables aloud to the user. This means that the technological basis for audio descriptions exists.

The cinema apps

US blockbusters as well as independent productions are listed in the "Greta" and "Starks" apps.

But app development costs a lot of money and many people try to dissuade her from pursuing the project. She also has her doubts; after all, she has never heard of an app like this. Even in the USA, there is nothing comparable. Has she really stumbled on a true innovation?

Seneit Debese is aware of possibilities for funding and fills out a lot of applications. The media board, the German Federal Film Board (FFA) and the Committee for Culture and the Media support her with grants or loans. Austria and Switzerland are also on board, along with organisations representing the visually and hearing impaired. Marketing is launched at the same time and cinema operators put Greta & Starks Braille postcards that smell like popcorn in their lobbies.

As the cooperation partner Ericsson is programming the first version, the project gets some help through a stroke of luck: the funding guidelines for German film change. Only productions with audio descriptions and subtitles are eligible for funding. This creates an incentive to pursue and expand the concept even more vigorously. A second app called Starks is also developed, which makes it possible to read film subtitles on smart phones.

Service free of charge

Barbara Fickert is a passionate film-goer, the audio versions make her visual impairment practically irrelevant.

Seneit Debese is now on the road a lot to present her solution to cinema operators and users. In Switzerland, she meets marketing manager Andres Schüpbach. He is impressed and moves to Berlin to focus on taking the company Greta & Starks to the next level with her.

Today, they manage the company together. In an old converted coach house with a garden in the district of Prenzlauer Berg, five employees are developing the market in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Many countries like Poland, Israel, Brazil and South Korea have already expressed interest. "It isn't a niche product. We work with major players, in other words, important US production and distribution companies. As a result, we also list blockbuster movies like “Star Wars”, “Fast and Furious” or Disney movies," says Andres Schüpbach.

No limits

Greta & Starks is planning subtitles and audio versions in other languages, allowing accessible cinema to also reach an international audience.

Today, he spends his lunch break at the movies, where he tests the subtitling for a new animated movie on his smart phone. He downloaded the version in the lobby ahead of time. Internet reception isn't good inside the theatre, which is why the app works offline. It syncs once the movie starts, and the dialogues appear on the display. "In one or two more years, mobile phones will no longer be necessary. We are working on a hardware variant: the text is shown on an optical display in data glasses. These kinds of wearables will be a standard part of the cinema experience in the foreseeable future, just like 3D glasses and subtitles in various languages," says Andres Schüpbach.

For Greta & Starks, it is especially important that the apps are free for users. This is possible because the distributors are the ones who commission the company with provision. It is not just directors and voiceover artists who work together to produce the audio descriptions. The users are also involved because only they can judge the quality. The barrier-free versions cost distributors around EUR 8,000 to EUR 10,000 per film — an investment in cinematic experiences that reach everyone.

One regular user of the Greta app is Barbara Fickert. She has 2% sight, which means she can distinguish between light and dark. "I always liked to go to the movies and when I heard about Greta and Starks, of course I was curious. The first time the app was presented, I knew immediately that it would be a quantum leap for cinema! I can finally be part of the conversation. I used to have to wait for films to appear on DVD with an audio version. Not only am I a passionate film lover, I also write about films now in my blog Blindgängerin." Seneit Debese is delighted for her: "Barbara is an accredited film critic at the international Leipzig Film Festival, this represents true inclusiveness for me and is a dream come true!"

Published on KfW Stories: Tuesday, 6 February 2018

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