State Officials Requesting Cinema Installations
What Exhibitors Should
Know About Captioning!
by Steven John Fellman
NATO Washington Counsel
The Department of Justice does not require
that motion picture theatres provide patrons with captioned
In the Revised Americans With Disabilities Act Accessibility
Guidelines (ADAAG) published July 23 by the Access Board,
it is stated that: “ADAAG and the Department of Justice’s
ADA regulations do not require captioning of movies for
persons who are deaf.”
Various groups representing deaf individuals
have organized the Coalition for Movie Captioning and urged
picture theatres provide captioned movies for deaf patrons.
Litigation has been filed against theatre circuits in three
federal courts to force cinemas to install captioning equipment.
In two cases, the courts ruled that captioning was not
required. In one case, the companies settled by agreeing
to install a limited number of captioning units.
There are at least three technologies that
are currently available to provide captioning for movie
oldest technology, and one apparently preferred by deaf
patrons, is open captioning. Open captioning traditionally
involves burning dialogue and other aural information onto
a print in the form of subtitles. Although open captioning
is mandated for certain TV presentations, the legislative
history behind the ADA is conclusive that motion pictures
do not have to be presented in an open-caption format and
movie theatres do not have to offer open-captioned films
to U.S. audiences.
Open-caption prints are often used in foreign
countries where U.S. films are shown to non-English-speaking
Some members of the creative community have objected to
open captioning, alleging that the captioning detracts
from the artistic presentation of their work. Some exhibitors
have reported that U.S. moviegoers object to open captioning
and will stay away from films that are shown in open-captioned
format if they can see the same film without the captioning.
As a result, although open-caption films have been shown
by many U.S. exhibitors for a number of years, such films
are usually played on weekday nights or as matinees rather
than on a Friday or Saturday night. Although there are
an increasing number of films being offered in open-captioned
format, the number of prints available for such films is
A second form of open captioning involves
utilizing a projector to display captioning in an open
format on a “reader” located
below the bottom of the screen. Although this type of captioning
is visible to all members of the audience, it does not
require that the captioning actually be burnt onto a print.
However, this type of captioning does require that the
theatre purchase additional equipment. A theatre equipped
with this system has the option of turning on the captioning
on demand. The theatre can announce publicly that captioning
will be available only for certain showings or only at
the request of a deaf patron. A benefit of this system
is that if there is no demand, there is no captioning visible
to the audience. A potential concern is that if the system
is activated on the demand of any patron, members of the
audience may object to being exposed to open captioning
without any prior notice.
The third type of captioning is closed captioning.
A closed-captioning system involves projecting the captioning
in such a way
that it is only visible to those theatre patrons who elect
to use the system. A closed captioning system that is currently
commercially available synchronizes captions and action
by projecting reverse text images onto a display unit on
a wall behind the audience. The reverse text is then reflected
to transparent screens placed in the cupholders of the
individual seats of those persons who have elected to use
the system. The screens are made available at the box office
or customer service desk. The moviegoers can theoretically
read the script on the screen and view the movie through
the screen simultaneously.
Although deaf patrons have indicated a preference
for open captioning and indicated some difficulty in utilizing
captioning technology, the deaf community would argue that
closed captioning is better than nothing.
Installation of projection-type open captioning
and closed captioning systems may cost $15,000 to $20,000
To install such a system in every screen in a large chain
of theatres would be very expensive. The first court decision
involving this issue, Cornelius v. Regal, held that requiring
a theatre chain to install captioning equipment in all
theatres would be an undue financial burden and therefore
was not required by the ADA. However, in a second case,
Ball v. AMC and Loews, the plaintiffs did not demand that
the exhibitors install captioning equipment in every auditorium
of every complex. By contrast, the plaintiffs asked that
the exhibitors install captioning equipment in one mid-sized
auditorium in less than half of their theatres in a certain
geographical area. In the Ball case, the judge ruled that
the ADA required theatre chains to consider new technology.
She argued that closed captioning technology did not exist
at the time that ADA was passed and she denied the theatre
chain’s motions for summary judgment and scheduled
the case to go to trial. Before the trial, the companies
settled, and each company agreed to put in a total of six
closed-captioning units within a 24-month period.
Recently, the attorney general of New Jersey
sent letters to all major exhibitors in that state informing
it was the position of the state that, under state law,
motion picture theatres must provide captioning for deaf
patrons. He asked that theatre chains install at least
one captioning system in each multiplex housing between
10 and 20 screens, and two units in multiplexes with
over 20 screens. In order to avoid litigation, some of
agreed to install a limited number of captioning units.
It can be expected that other states, with
similar state ADA statutes, will follow the New Jersey
request exhibitors put in some type of captioning equipment.
implementation of digital cinema may make this type
of captioning equipment obsolete, the state attorneys general
probably will not agree to wait until digital cinema
becomes a more significant market presence.
Initial reports on utilization of captioning
equipment in motion picture theatres shows that usage is
low. Although there are certain auditoria where such
is used on a regular basis, in many auditoria the
equipment is rarely, if ever, used. When faced with a request
from an attorney general to install captioning equipment,
the theatre owner can choose to litigate or negotiate.
theatre owner chooses to negotiate, a decision must
reached whether to offer to provide open captioning
or closed captioning.
It can be expected that theatre chains will
have to be making more and more of these decisions in
months. The distributors have indicated that they
will provide caption-display disks in either open-caption
or closed-caption format but usually not in both.
seem to favor open captioning. Others favor closed
More and more films are being made available with
caption disks. Currently, distributors are not
for use of the disks. However, that could change.
Every exhibitor should consider what to
do when faced with the issue of captioning.