Have you had the chance to watch We Hear You, our documentary about hearing loss? If so, you probably noticed the open captions burned directly into the film to help people with hearing loss (and others) follow the dialogue easily. Our film is about hearing loss, so open captions are the obvious choice. CODA, the recent movie about the deaf experience also featured open captions at every showing. Despite concerns by movie theater owners that audiences don’t like on-screen captions, the public seemed to love CODA, awarding it a 94% viewer rating on Rotten Tomatoes), open captions and all.
CODA’s positive ratings beg the question: Why aren’t more films screened with open captions? A group of advocates in New York City is trying to achieve just that. They support a city ordinance that would boost the required number of open captioned screenings at local cinemas. Their aim: more equal access at the movies for people with hearing loss.
Fairness and Equality at the Movies
The NYC ordinance is not greedy. It aims to create a fair opportunity for people with hearing loss to see movies with open (on-screen) captions without diminishing the ability of others to see movies without visible captions. Open captioned showings are currently few and far between. And they are often scheduled for off-peak times. The ordinance would increase the frequency of open captioned screenings and boost the number that occur during prime viewing windows.
What are open captions?
Captions come in two basic types: open and closed. Closed Captions are the most common kind of captions, used by major broadcasters and video streaming services. They can be turned on or off by the user and usually require decoding devices (like the CaptiView systems that are often found at movie theaters) to access them.
Open captions appear directly on the video making them visible to all viewers without the use of a decoder device.
Why is this important?
People with hearing loss often struggle at the movie theater. While closed-captioning devices are terrific, they are not always well maintained leaving movie-goers with hearing loss in the lurch. Free passes for another show because the closed captioning system is on the fritz does not help us enjoy the show in the moment. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially if the trip to the cinema is a long-planned outing with friends or family.
Even when the devices work, open captions are preferable because they work seamlessly. There is no need to self-identify as having hearing loss or to retrieve and return any devices. Some theaters require you to leave an ID behind when using them, adding to the hassle. The devices are also often difficult to manage. They are bulky and don’t always fit well in cupholders. Or in the case of caption glasses, they are uncomfortable or difficult to wear over an existing pair of glasses.
What costs are involved?
According to the NYC petitioners, open captions do not add anything to the cost of the movie for theaters. Digital movie packages can be requested with open captions, closed captions or both at no additional cost. Theaters sometimes resist holding open caption performances arguing that attendance dips, but according to the NYC factsheet, there is no evidence to support this worry. In contrast, there is research to show that everyone loves captions—hearing loss or not.
What are the benefits?
The benefits of open captioned performances are clear—better access for people with all degrees of hearing loss. But people with hearing loss are not the only beneficiaries. Open captions also help people with autism and auditory processing disorders, as well as senior citizens, children learning to read and people for whom English is a second language.
Advocacy Efforts Already Underway
The NYC effort to increase open captioned showings in theaters is not the first of its kind. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state in the country to require theaters with more than two locations to offer open captioned showings. The initial mandate required theaters to hold at least two open captioned showings per week of each film. Later iterations dropped the requirement to one showing per week OR the offering of closed captioning devices. Discouraging, but the advocacy continues.
A current measure is pending in Washington D.C. that would require a minimum of 12% of all movie showings to be open captioned. There is also a change.org petition supporting more open captioned performances in movie theaters that boasts more than 23,000 signatures.
If you are interested in supporting this effort, feel free to sign and share Jamie Berke’s petition or if you live in New York City, reach out to your local city council member to show your support for Int. 2020. Those outside the five boroughs can contact Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s office to urge his co-sponsorship and scheduling of a hearing during this City Council term.
Readers, would you like more open captioned movie screenings at your local theater?