Captioned Movies…Now Showing At Your Local Theater!

Movie scene showing W.C Fields, with captions that say "Uh, was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?"

This article is also posted on the Collaborative for Communication Access Via Captioning (CCAC) blog. Click here to view.

For many people in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in the United States, the most convenient way to enjoy newly-released movies is to watch them on DVD, which is almost always closed-captioned (or, for non-English movies, subtitled).  It is not easy for them to go to a movie theater and watch any movie on the silver screen — because most of them are not captioned.  As efforts to improve accessibility for deaf viewers at movie theaters gain steam, awareness of the options available to these viewers is crucial to the goal of achieving universal accessibility for the deaf in every movie theater in the United States.  The reality, however, is there is not enough publicity in this regard, potentially undercutting the case for bringing more deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to movie theaters.  In this age of social media, it is essential that Facebook, Twitter, and other social marketing tools be utilized to increase awareness and generate interest in these accessible options — which can be as close as the local theater down the street.

As a deaf person, I admit to being an apathetic movie theater patron. Due to the long experience of not being able to understand movies on the silver screen, I have unfortunately developed deeply-ingrained habits that specifically exclude going to movie theaters in favor of enjoying DVDs on the television tube, or on my laptop — both of which are far more accessible. So even when Rear-Window Captioning (RWC) is available for select movies in some movie theaters, and CaptiView is available at other theaters, and there are publicized open-captioned (OC) showings, I do not jump out of my seat and race to the theater, popcorn bucket in hand.  I reserve my movie theater excitement for foreign, non-English movies subtitled in English, which I can enjoy at the Angelika in Soho or the Sunshine Cinema on the Lower East Side. (I live in New York City.)  I was excited for a while about a Subtitles app for my iPhone — which I wrote about last year on — but apparently according to an expert source I spoke to, the open-source platform that Subtitles relies on is on sketchy legal territory.

For some deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the movie theater experience is incredibly enjoyable for them, and they make every effort to find the nearest multiplex that is accessible. But for some others, it is convenient to wait two or three months for the movies to be available on video-on-demand or DVD. This creates a dilemma for those who advocate for accessibility at movie theaters.

Non-deafened movie enthusiasts have the luxury — from the perspective of the deaf — of going to any movie, including heavily-anticipated new releases, in any theater, any time they decide they want to.  Deaf people do not have this type of access, hence the desire for universal accessibility. It has been a major undertaking over the past two decades, starting in the 1990s with deaf advocates pushing for RWC in theaters in lieu of open-captioning which was almost always inconveniently shown “at non-premium times, such as Tuesday evenings or Sunday mornings.”

Negotiations with movie theater chains over the past two decades for accessibility for the deaf have not always gone smoothly.  Some chains said early on that deaf people prefer open captions to RWC, justifying the decision not to expand RWC, and leaving open captioning schedules unchanged. Now, as more and more chains go on board by providing RWC and other devices to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to enjoy movies along with their non-deaf peers, it is essential that we show our appreciation with our feet.  Unfortunately, according to reliable sources from advocates within and for the deaf, it has become apparent that not enough deaf people show up at RWC or open-captioned showings.

How much of that is apathy and ignorance? Or simply lack of awareness? I believe it’s the latter, and with enough publicity using today’s marketing tools such as Facebook and Twitter, more deaf and hard-of-hearing people will want to head for the movie theater.  And not only them, but also elderly patrons who are having difficulty understanding what is being said on the silver screen — a rapidly growing demographic in the United States as the first wave of baby boomers hits retirement age this year.  Just as critically important is that this type of publicity also reach those who are not deaf or hard-of-hearing.  They became aware of the existence of TTYs for the deaf a generation ago, and they should become aware that their deaf peers can go to the theater and enjoy a movie just like them.

So far, I have only heard of the existence of RWC and OC showings through the Captionfish app on my iPhone, and occasional publicity on Deaf NYC News.  Captionfish has a Facebook page, but it is national in scope and it is not easy nor effective to publicize at the local level.  There needs to be a consistent, sustained effort to effectively and transparently create a buzz about upcoming accessible movies that are shown in the local area.  Once that happens, deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons can join their non-deafened peers at the nearest movie theater — creating more opportunities for theater chains to caption more movies.

2 Comments on "Captioned Movies…Now Showing At Your Local Theater!"

  1. would like to know which movie theaters now showing films with closed captions and subtitles in new york city please advise do you know which websites we can find out about closed captions and subtitles thank you


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