• Movie Captioning: Now the Rule Rather than the Exception

    by  • May 17, 2011 • Featured, Legislation, News

    Widespread movie captioning in California came one big step closer to reality in April 2011, when Cinemark announced plans to equip all of its first-run theaters in the state to show closed-captioned movies by June 15 of 2012. Cinemark’s decision led to a friendly resolution of the lawsuit filed by two individuals, Linda Drattell and Rick Rutherford, and by the Association of Late-Deafened Adults. I represented the plaintiffs in the suit in partnership with Disability Rights Advocates, a public-interest law firm based in Berkeley.

    Cinemark will convert at least half of its first-run theaters in California to digital projection by June 15 of this year, and will install equipment in each auditorium to show closed-captioned movies. The captions will not be visible to the general audience, but only to patrons who use a viewing device that the theaters will provide at no charge.

    Over 80% of the major-studio movies today come with captions. The theaters must install the equipment required to show the captions.

    The captioning capability will be installed in conjunction with Cinemark’s conversion of its first-run theaters to digital projection. When digital projecting equipment is installed, film ceases to exist – movies become a package of digitized information transmitted either on computer discs or over the internet. Because there is no film to physically deteriorate, colors don’t fade and the print doesn’t scratch.

    Digital projection is highly desirable from the studios’ point of view, because the expense of producing and mailing large canisters of film is enormous. But the benefits to the theaters are less clear, and may in fact be negative, because digital projectors are expensive, and they require considerably more expensive upkeep than film projectors.

    While digital conversion has been technically possible for some time, its actual roll-out was delayed while the theaters and the studios negotiated over who paid for it. The precise details of that resolution are at least somewhat confidential, but the general outline is that the theaters will borrow money to finance the conversion, and then the studios will reimburse them over time in the form of a “print fee” paid for showing digital movies.

    The delay in widespread digital conversion also hampered the expansion of movie captioning. The equipment used to show captions in theaters using film wouldn’t necessarily work with the equipment used to show captions in a digital theater. Because of that, the theater chains essentially froze their captioning capability for several years rather than buy equipment that might become outmoded.

    With the financing questions resolved, at least for the large theater chains, digital conversion is finally under way. As that has occurred, the theaters are also beginning to install equipment necessary to show captions.

    Although many people with hearing loss prefer open captions, in which the captions are projected on the screen and are visible to the entire audience, the theaters are firmly convinced that open captions deter other patrons. Therefore, all have opted for some form of closed captioning after they convert to digital projection. The captions are not visible to the general audience, but show up on viewing devices that a patron wishing to view the captions checks out.

    Cinemark and Regal, the nation’s third and first largest theater chains, respectively, have completed both digital conversion and the installation of full captioning capability at all of their theaters in King County, Washington. (Both chains were defendants in a lawsuit I filed on behalf of the Washington State Communication Access Project, www.wash-cap.com.)  The experience in Washington gives us some idea of what to expect in California.

    The good news is that captioning has become the rule rather than the exception. Instead of having one or at the most two movies at any multiplex available in captioned form, the vast majority of the movies Regal and Cinemark are showing in the Seattle area are now available with captions. And instead of having limited show-times, the captions are available for every showing of every movie that comes with studio-provided captions.

    Cinemark is using a viewing device called CaptiView. The CaptiView unit is a metal box with a shielded viewing screen mounted on a flexible goose-neck that sits in the theater seat cup-holder. The captions are transmitted wirelessly directly to the unit. While some users that have tried the system in the greater Seattle area have cited eye fatigue from needing to look back and forth from the viewing box to the screen, others have had very good things to say about the system.

    CaptiView is, in some respects, similar to Rear Window Captioning, in which the captions are projected in mirror image on an LED reader-board mounted on the theater’s rear wall, and are viewed on a transparent plexiglass screen. CaptiView has some advantages over RWC. It works equally well from any seat, and because the captions are transmitted wirelessly, the system isn’t interrupted by visual interference, such as the person behind the viewer standing up. On the other hand, one advantage to RWC is the transparent viewing screen, which permits a viewer to superimpose the viewing panel onto the movie screen, and can create an illusion of an open-captioned movie. Because the CaptiView unit is solid, the viewer either has to position the viewer unit below or to the side of the movie screen and glance back and forth, or place it in the same sight-line as the screen, thereby blocking some of the picture.

    Regal is offering a similar system, but is also experimenting with eyewear – special glasses (that can fit over regular eyeglasses) that display the captions on the lens. The caption size and perceived distance can be adjusted to be consistent with where in the theater the viewer is sitting. Despite some negatives – unattractive glasses and a somewhat cumbersome receiving device that the viewer must attach to a shirt or sweater – the eyewear has generally received very positive reviews.

    The good news is that the technology that converts the digital information into readable captions can work with a number of different viewing devices, and can work with more than one device at the same time. Moreover, all of viewing devices can work in any auditorium of a multi-plex theater. It should be possible, therefore, for any multiplex to have a variety of viewing devices available, giving the viewer a menu of options. Moreover, feedback from movie-goers who need captions to fully enjoy a movie may lead to additional and improved viewing devices.

    The important thing now will be for people with hearing loss who have shunned the movies to get back into the movie-going habit. Cinemark has given California viewers everything the law can accomplish, and Regal has promised to do the same thing. The remaining objectives – getting studios to caption all rather than most movies, and finding even better viewing devices – are things that have to be accomplished with our dollars at the box office rather than in court.

    In addition to getting more of the studios to step up and provide captions, the major problem going forward is going to be how to bring captioning to those smaller, independent theaters that will not convert to digital projection in the near future. The threshold question is whether those theaters will even survive. Will actual film movies still be produced, or will those theaters become “oldies” houses? A further problem is that the equipment required to show captions for those movies is considerably more expensive than the equipment required to show digital captioning, and may not even be available in the future. This is a problem that will require considerable creativity both on our part as advocates and on the part of the theaters themselves.


    John Waldo is a practicing attorney on Bainbridge Island, Washington. His practice focuses on advocacy for and representation of people with hearing loss, something he has lived with since childhood. (He got his first CI in July, an Advanced Bionics Harmony). He is founder and counsel for the Washington State Communication Access Project (Wash-CAP) and counsel to the Oregon Communication Access Project, non-profit membership corporations that advocate for accommodations that make public places accessible to people with hearing loss. Wash-CAP’s website is www.wash-cap.com.