Seneit Debese of Greta & Starks on accessible cinema

Category: Future heads

© Greta&Starks

© Greta&Starks

© Greta&Starks

Greta & Starks enable blind or deaf people to watch films in the cinema or in their own living room. While Starks plays special subtitles on the user's smartphone that are synchronised with the film, Greta provides blind audiences with so-called “audio descriptions”. Both applications automatically sync with the film. Users don't need any additional hardware for this, only their smartphone – the apps can be downloaded for free.
In this interview with Projekt Zukunft, founder Seneit Debese explains how the apps work and how she was able to develop her innovative software and hardware projects in part thanks to different funding instruments available in Berlin.

Ms Debese, how exactly do your apps Greta & Starks work and what are the advantages over other solutions?

Our basic aim is to become a likeable open version of iTunes for audio descriptions, specific subtitles aimed at the hard of hearing, HoH in short, and on top of that international, i.e. foreign language subtitles. Our apps make accessible a barrier-free version of film regardless of the film medium, which enables users to play back audio descriptions or subtitles wherever they need to. One of our users, for example, simply played subtitles via Starks on his flight to Miami. Our apps basically work like on offline version of the music identification software Shazam. Our solution is software-based, it works globally without exceptions and costs the cinema and film industry only about 1 percent compared to hardware-based solutions. Our innovation makes us the most successful company in this area. It is our aim to generate a market volume of 62 million EUR in Europe.

Your team is rather small which makes it impossible for you to create audio descriptions and subtitles in-house which is why you need to outsource these services. How exactly do these collaborations work and how important is the issue of “accessible cinema” to your collaborators?

Audio descriptions have been around for nearly 40 years. However, audio descriptions and subtitles were not accessible in cinemas, in particular. We managed to the fly to the moon 50 years ago, which makes it seem likely that we should be able to provide audio descriptions and subtitles that are location-independent, easy-to-use, accessible everywhere and offline. This is why we have developed Greta & Starks. Our applications are free of charge for users and cinemas. Our customers are the distributors. With the cinemas we form an alliance, or rather a partner network, that includes Austria and Switzerland, in order communicate this offer to blind and deaf persons and those with a visual or hearing impairment as well as their families and friends in a manner that is accessible everywhere, cost-effective and diverse. Also, as a cinema goer you will surely notice our logo, our trailer, a poster or the like.

How has Greta & Starks fared with distributors so far?

Our collaboration with distributors, in particular with distributors such as Universal, Piffl Medien, Concorde, Weltfilm, X-Verleih, Warner, Fox, StudioCanal and so on is working very well. Universal is the first distributor to have started making accessible all its films, even the international ones, through our app using audio descriptions and subtitles. This makes blockbuster films such as 50 Shades of Grey, Minions, Jason Bourne and many more accessible. While some distributors consider the issue to be highly relevant and get involved to a degree that is above average, there are other distributors, including Berlin-based distributors and public broadcasters, in particular, that we still have to convince of our product.

How many are already available in your database? Is there a focus on a specific genre?

For the first time in cinema history that spans nearly a century more than 140 films are now accessible to all audiences through Greta & Starks with around 70 films following this autumn, including 30 films that we make accessible for DOK-Filmfest Leipzig. It is our aim to make all cinema films accessible on DVD, VOD and TV enabling viewers to enjoy a broad spectrum of offers together with others. We are very happy that we have been able to contribute to other initiative such as a blind cinema enthusiast's blog. In addition, we are busy introducing our “cinema for all” project in other countries, including France, Poland, Israel and Brazil.

Berlin has a diverse and active creative and media scene. How important has this been when it comes to establishing your own network?

The first two years were almost entirely dedicated to building our company and the struggle to establish our solutions and innovations on the market. Now that we have nearly finished developing our special subtitle projection headset for use in cinemas, for example, we are looking forward to an intense exchange. Thanks to the Media Residency Program we were able to present the Berlin-based startup scene in New York for three months. At the same time, this was a unique possibility for us to introduce our apps to American users and evaluate the market situation. We were able to confirm that there is substantial demand for a software-based solution – i.e. our apps Greta & Starks – in the US as well. In addition, we were able to intensify our exchange with the creative and media scene in Berlin.

How did you initially manage to come up with funds for founding the company, marketing your apps, etc.? Did you make use of funding programmes that are available in Berlin?

Prior to founding Greta & Starks I worked as a distributor which is why we were able to benefit from film funding tools such as Medievalist, for example. Right from the beginning we received a lot of support from Investitionsbank Berlin, who supported us through several funding programmes. Also, we had help from Berlin Partner and from the Investment Bank of the State of Brandenburg. Our headset Starks Glass for easy and wireless subtitle projection were funded through Transfer BONUS and Design Transfer Bonus programmes. Last year, we were awarded the Creative Technology Award by the Senate Department for Economics, Technology and Research, which comes with a purse of 10,000 EUR. To conclude: Not just has our experience with funding programmes in Berlin been very positive, we also very much feel in good hands and are very happy about the diverse support. 

With the development of your headset you have tackled a rather daunting hardware project – this surely must have been a lot of work?

Indeed! And what’s even more important: Financing such projects is difficult. We are developing a cost-effective, special headset that can be used to project subtitles in the cinema, the theatre or at the opera, in order to provide universal access to subtitles for deaf and international audiences. The development phase has taken longer than necessary due to a lack of financial means. This is why we are all the happier that Berlin Partner pointed us to Transfer BONUS and Design Transfer Bonus and that they helped us acquire the funds. However, it would be even better for a small, upcoming company such as ours if, let's say 80 percent of the funds were paid out immediately, which is very common in film funding and it helps a lot. The teams responsible for Transfer BONUS and Design Transfer Bonus are very competent, supportive, friendly and very patient.

Ms Debese, finally, could you please complete following sentence: Berlin is...

... exactly the way I like it. Here, everyone can act out the entire range of their diversity in harmony.


Tanja Mühlhans

Leitung Kreativ- und Medienwirtschaft, Digitalwirtschaft, Projekt Zukunft