Open captioning in theaters is more user-friendly than personal captioning technology, deaf movie fans say
“Nobody knew that I was different,” she said. “It was so nice to not be reminded of the challenges of being deaf.”
The theatrical release of “CODA” has resurfaced the long frustrations of deaf and hard-of-hearing movie fans, who say the mainstream moviegoing experience isn’t truly accessible, despite the introduction of some accommodations such as personal captioning technology.
Many deaf people consider open captions the least fraught and most inclusive way to watch a movie. Proponents say the format can also benefit some hearing audiences, including non-native speakers of a film’s language, those with attention-deficit disorders and younger viewers used to subtitled television and social-media videos.
But tracking down open-caption screenings is often difficult, some accessibility campaigners say.
Not every movie distributor creates an open-captioned version for every movie, and not every theater schedules open-captioned screenings, according to Charlotte Little, an Edinburgh-based deafblind accessibility consultant for the film exhibition industry. Those that do offer accessible screenings often schedule them at awkward times, such as during the workday or very late at night, and may only play them a handful of times in a film’s run, she said.
Accessible alternatives to open-caption screenings aren’t always popular among deaf cinemagoers.
Movie theaters in the US are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide “closed” movie captioning, viewable on a small screen device that is placed in the viewer’s cup holder or with special glasses that project captions onto the lenses. But these devices can be unreliable or uncomfortable, deaf moviegoers say.
Closed captioning ensures every screening is accessible to deaf people, and theater owners have reported a decrease in ticket sales for most open-captioned shows compared with noncaptioned shows, said Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer of the National Association of Theater Owners.
Still, many movie theaters are providing more open-caption screenings in response to consumer feedback, Mr. Corcoran said.
AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc.,
The owner of the largest movie theater chain in the US, last October announced a push into open-caption screenings. It now offers open captioning at certain showings in around 260 of its US theaters, representing just under 45% of the company’s domestic locations in 80% of its markets.
AMC didn’t previously program open-caption screenings consistently, although its theaters could show select titles in the format based on local guest demand and feedback, a company said.
Some lawmakers are pushing for more open-caption screenings.
District of Columbia Councilmember Charles Allen and a majority of the DC Council this month introduced a bill that would require DC movie theaters with more than one screen to provide open captioning on at least 12% of the weekly scheduled showings of each film playing, and for at least half of the open-captioned screenings to be scheduled during peak attendance hours.
The New York City Council passed a similar bill last December, and Hawaii in 2019 required theater operators with two or more locations in the state to provide open captioning twice a week per movie.
Ms. Eagen Holland said she would go to the movies a lot more if theaters increased their number of open-captioned screenings.
“I even went back to see ‘CODA’ a second time within a week because I just missed that movie-theater atmosphere,” she said. “I felt that it would be a long time before I went to a theater again.”
Write to Katie Deighton at [email protected]
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