Captioning Access in Movie Theaters: An Update

By Stanton, John F.; Dubin, Rachel | Volta Voices, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Captioning Access in Movie Theaters: An Update


Stanton, John F., Dubin, Rachel, Volta Voices


AG Bell members may remember a time when attending a captioned movie in a theater was a rarity. Between the mid 1980s and the late 1990s, the vast majority of deaf moviegoers would have to wait for the movie to come out on video or television to see a movie captioned.

Every couple of months, a theater would show a captioned movie on a weekday evening. In addition, the charge for admission would be twice the usual price with the excess profits given to local deaf groups. And there was no guarantee that the movie was a new release, a blockbuster or contained content for audiences older than 10 years old.

Since then, there has been enormous progress on improving the availability of movie captioning. While much progress undoubtedly remains to be made, both technological and legal advances have greatly expanded the number of caption-accessible showings and feature options in movie theaters.

Technological Advances

Currently, the two most popular forms of movie-theater captioning technology are Rear-Window Captioning (RWC), and DTS-CSS. The overwhelming majority of captioned films in theaters are through one of these two systems.

DTS-CSS can "beam" or project captions onto an otherwise uncaptioned movie. Because the entire audience can see the captions, DTS-CSS is considered open captioning.

RWC was first used in theaters in 1997 and has by far enjoyed the most success among closed-captioning system (in which captions are only seen by patrons who want to see them). With RWC, the captions are projected in reverse onto a large LED display in the back of the theater. Viewers use a reflective plastic panel mounted on their cup holders to reflect the captions in readable form. Other viewers cannot see the captions.

However, a new closed captioning system appears ready to challenge RWC. Some movie theaters are exploring the possibility of installing personal captioning devices (PCDs). PCDs are wireless displays that, like RWC screens, can be attached to the cup holder. A demonstration of PCDs can be found online at www.personalcaptioning.com. The PCDs are cheaper to purchase than the RWC system and can work in any theater (as opposed to only the theaters where the screen in which the RWC equipment is installed). It is not clear whether the captions and the movie can be viewed through the same sightline, but some AG Bell members have tried PCDs in movie theaters and believe that they work fine.

The success of both RWC and DTSCSS resulted in the demise of one traditional movie captioning source: Insight Cinema (formerly Tripod). From the late 1980s until April 2008, Insight obtained copies of movies in which the captions were "burned" directly onto the film and shown whenever that copy of the film was run. After theaters installed either RWC or DTSCSS equipment, they could show more captioned movies and could offer more flexible show times than with Insight films. As a result, Insight closed its business earlier this year.

Legal Advances

When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, deaf advocates were dismayed to learn that the law stated that "open captioning" was not required. Ostensibly, Congress believed that hearing patrons would find open captions too distracting and would stop attending movies altogether. Congress made this decision even though courts had repeatedly rejected analogous arguments from theaters regarding earlier civil rights laws, which maintained that white patrons would be offended by the presence of AfricanAmerican patrons and would stop attending movies.

Beginning in 2000, several lawsuits were filed in federal courts arguing that ADA required closed-captioning access in theaters. Some captioning advocates were very critical of these lawsuits, reasoning that it was better to "work with" the theaters to get them to voluntarily show captioned features. History has proved those critics wrong. Litigation produced far greater results in captioning access than efforts to "work with" theaters in this regard. …

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