The long-standing dream of fully accessible movies continues to move closer to reality in California. AMC, America’s second-largest theater chain, announced this week that it would install captioning equipment at all of its first-run theaters throughout the nation, joining Regal and Cinemark, America’s first and third largest chains, in committing to full access for people with hearing loss.
The AMC announcement came in the course of ongoing discussions involving the Association of Late Deafened Adults, attorneys from the public-interest law firm Disability Rights Advocates, and myself. Because AMC is attempting to blend two different captioning systems and because it is attempting to allocate the available equipment on an equitable basis across the country, the exact schedule and sequence of its California roll-out is not yet known. But suffice it to say that California movie-goers will soon experience a dramatic increase in movie availability.
Meanwhile, Cinemark’s actual deployment of captioning equipment is well ahead of schedule. As of mid-August, Cinemark had installed at least some captioning equipment at 51 different California locations. In all, 440 Cinemark auditoriums in the state were equipped to show captioned movies, and the number continues to increase.
Cinemark has also made major strides in the past month at making information about captioned movies more readily available. Working with Nanci Linke-Ellis, Cinemark has worked out a means by which the list of captioned movies and their showtimes can be displayed on the Captionfish website, www.captionfish.com
, which is rapidly becoming a go-to source of information for people with hearing loss. A user can go to the Captionfish site, input their location by name or zip code, and learn what captioned movies are available nearby. The site notes the method of captioning being used, including an indication of which movies may be subtitled foreign-language films.
The increase in captioning availability is occurring in tandem with conversion from traditional film projection to digital projection. In that mode, film ceases to exist as a physical reality. Instead of large reels of film, movies are reduced to digital format and transmitted to the theaters either on computer discs or over the internet. In addition to creating a means of movie display that can’t deteriorate over time, digital projection saves the studios considerable money, because there is no longer any need to create the physical movie prints or to pay to ship them.
For a number of years, the prospects of digital conversion at some unspecified future time served to retard the availability of captioned movies. Although the vast majority of major-studio movies had captions provided under contract with the studios, the theaters were reluctant to purchase and install captioning equipment that would work with film but that might not work with digital projectors. Now that digital conversions are actually taking place on a broad scale, that issue disappears. Not only do the theaters accept the fact that digital projection is not likely to become outmoded anytime soon, but the equipment to show captions from a digital set-up is considerably less expensive than the equipment necessary to show captions with traditional film.
Cinemark’s commitment to full captioning capability throughout California resolved a lawsuit that DRA attorneys and I had filed in Oakland on behalf of ALDA and two individuals, Linda Drattell and Rick Rutherford. That action was quickly and amicably resolved at the end of March, with a commitment on the part of Cinemark to install captioning upon completion of its digital conversions. Cinemark did not limit its commitment to California, but announced that it would provide full captioning capability nationwide. Regal quickly made a similar commitment. AMC was the last of the three large chains to do so.
All those theaters are going to use closed captioning, in which the captions – the written dialogue and some additional aural information – are displayed on individual viewing devices so as not to alter the movie-going experience for other patrons. Two of the viewing devices, made by different companies, display the captions on a cell-phone like screen. The display module is mounted on a flexible goose-neck that fits in the cup-holders. In some respects, it is similar to Rear Windows Captioning (RWC), except that instead of showing a mirror-image reflection of captions being displayed on an LED board mounted on the rear wall of the auditorium, the captions are transmitted wirelessly.
AMC is planning to use viewing devices manufactured by one company but digital projectors manufactured by a different one, so it needs to install some form of conversion gear. Because of that, and because of the heavy demand being placed on the small firm that manufactures the viewing devices, AMC cannot develop a definite schedule for captioning availability in California, but expects some installations to begin before the end of 2011, and anticipates full deployment by the end of 2013.
Elsewhere around the nation, favorable court decisions have advanced the cause of movie access. In July, a court in Washington state directed AMC to equip all of its theaters to show captioned movies after digital conversion. AMC resisted, but based on financial data we presented at trial, the judge concluded that AMC could afford to provide full accessibility, and therefore ordered that it be done.
Although the trend seems to be moving irreversibly towards something approaching universal access to the movies, there are still some significant issues that need to be addressed.
First, there is some concern about the effectiveness of the viewing devices, which have not been tested on a broad scale over a long period of time. In my opinion, this issue is far better addressed in our capacities as consumers than through any legal process. The law requires theaters to provide “effective” accommodations, not necessarily those that we prefer – particularly not those that only a few individuals prefer. I think the best way to approach this issue is to try what is being offered, suggest changes if appropriate, and then, most importantly, actually patronize the accommodations being requested.
Second, there is an unresolved problem of what can be done with and for those smaller theaters that are not presently planning to convert to digital projection. With the major theaters all going digital, there may not be a sufficient remaining market to continue supporting the captioning equipment that works with film. Moreover, there is no iron-clad assurance that all studios will even continue producing film – some pessimists believe that theaters that cannot afford the high cost of digital projecting equipment will essentially become “museums” that show film “oldies.”
Third, there is the problem that not all studios caption all of their movies. Those movies for which captions are not provided tend to be the movies produced by small, independent studios – the very movies that have the greatest appeal to the older audiences that have the higher prevalence of hearing loss. Of the ten movies nominated for the 2010 Best Picture Oscar, seven were captioned, but the three that were not were those with appeal to a mature audience – “Winter’s Bone,” “The Kids Are Alright,” and, ironically, “The King’s Speech.” Thus, a movie about a communication disorder was inaccessible to millions of us with a communication disorder.
I am hopeful this situation of inaccessible movies will change. For the longest time, the barrier to accessibility has been the theaters. That seems to be changing. One would hope that more of the studios will now step up and do their part.