Between the Oscars finally installing a ramp at its annual ceremony and the Emmys failing to live up to their promise of one, it’s still shocking that, in 2021, the implementation of basic equipment to allow Deaf and disabled people the same access as everyone else is still hovering at adequate. This is especially true when it comes to on-screen media representation and literal access to media spaces.
This week, AMC Entertainment, owner of the largest movie theater chain in the world, announced that it will expand on-screen captioning at 240 locations in the United States. On-screen captioning is presented within the film, not unlike turning the presentation into the sort you might find on a DVD or Blu-ray. This is different than closed captioning, which theater patrons see through the use of a special device. In the past, however, these devices have been criticized for malfunctioning or not being charged by theater staff before use.
According to Lawrence Carter-Long, spokesperson for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), the growing use of on-screen captions points toward the possibility of true equality for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences at the movies. “People have become more accustomed to seeing captions on the ubiquitous screens that surround us — everywhere from the treadmills at gyms, to TVs in bars showing championship playoff games, to the scrolls at the bottom of our newscasts,” he told IndieWire. “We’ve also seen an increase in subtitles from the increase of foreign language content on streaming services and captions on the videos we watch on mobile devices.”
The move has been a long time coming. Most theaters tend to relegate on-screen captioning screenings to certain days of the week (my local theater tends to have just one or two screenings of this kind in a given week). If Deaf or hard of hearing audiences need to see a movie with captions, they’re either forced to rely on unreliable theater equipment, work their schedule around a screening, or just wait until streaming or physical release.
But as the pandemic showed us, there’s no reason that things Deaf and disabled audiences have been asking for for decades could not happen and on-screen captioning is one.
“Whether a movie is closed captioned and open captioned greatly impacts the decision of many Deaf and hard of hearing people to go or not go to see a movie,” said Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. “The first movies were silent, and that was accessible to the Deaf and hard of hearing community. Since then, our community has often had to wait to see movies with captions, initially years after the first run of those movies. In recent years, captioned access to first-run movies has improved thanks to litigation and legislation.”
Litigation has certainly been at the heart of most captioning debates, making AMC’s preemptive move even more intriguing. Actress Marlee Matlin, the Oscar-winning Deaf actress from “Children of a Lesser God,” was an instrumental proponent of getting federal law passed requiring closed captions on all manufactured televisions, and in 2014 she was vocal about streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu offering captions, which the companies capitulated to under threat of being fined just like a broadcast television.
Matlin’s latest movie, the Sundance award-winning family drama “CODA,” recently played in theaters across the U.S. with open captions at every screening.
Movie theaters have long resisted the desire to put in closed or open captioning, starting with the 1990 implementation of the American with Disabilities Act. According to Rosenblum, “Despite this mandate, movie theaters fought all efforts to compel captioning of any kind. This changed with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Arizona v. Harkins Amusement Enterprise case in 2010 that compelled movie theaters to provide access for people with disabilities.”
He added, “This led to a U.S. Department of Justice process of rule-making and comment from the industry and community that culminated in DOJ regulations governing movie theater accessibility for Deaf and hard of hearing people as well as blind and visually impaired people. Many within the Deaf and hard of hearing community were not satisfied with the DOJ regulations for only requiring closed captioning and failing to require open captioning.”
Though Rosenblum is happy with the decision, especially considering every other theater chain has extremely limited or no access to open caption screenings, he still wants to know why it’s being limited to 240 locations.
“There is no cost to provide open captioning compared to the expense of outfitting theaters with closed captioning technology,” he said. In an article with The New York Times, John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners said, “In some cases, putting open captions on the screen diminishes ticket sales for the movie,” and that the industry is hoping to study the relationship between on-screen captions and ticket sales.
And while there’s no word on what precipitated AMC’s decision, Carter-Long said it just makes good business sense. “Businesses like AMC realize that giving audiences a captioned option makes smart business sense because captioning opens the market for each film screened to an additional number of viewers — not only individuals who are Deaf or have hearing disabilities, but also people who are aging, folks whose primary language isn’t English, and everyone who doesn’t want to miss important dialogue.”
Carter-Long also cited multiple studies that show reading captions can help audiences focus and retain information, as well as better understand dialogue without needing to pause or rewind. He hopes more theaters plan to follow suit. He added, “You don’t have to be Deaf, when theater chains like AMC provide open captions, everybody wins.”
In a landscape where theaters remain difficult to navigate for Deaf and disabled audiences, moves like this imply that there is a growing awareness of the need to get Deaf audiences into a theater. If the hope is for theaters to rebound in the wake of the pandemic, they must finally start catering to all audiences, not just the abled or hearing.