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Why We Need Open-Captioning in Movie Theaters

by KB about a month ago in movie

and the first deaf superhero.

Sophie Mutevelian / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“They also ask me about American Sign Language, which I'm very proud to showcase. At the same time...there's so much more to the deaf experience than being a signer. It's how to live in a space that is for a world which is auditory. How do you share that space? I'm really interested in talking about those things.”

-Lauren Ridloff, interview with WMagazine

Lauren Ridloff is a deaf actress known for her role in the TV series, The Walking Dead, and most recently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film, Eternals. This film marks Ridloff as the first deaf actor in the MCU; the first deaf superhero. In tandem with the publicity tour for the film, Ridloff has been advocating for movie theaters across the country to be more accommodating for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Because of this, not only is Ridloff known for her acting, she is recognized for her activism for these communities.

But, there is still a lack of resources and accommodations for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The solution? Scheduling more open-caption viewings in movie theaters.

There is a prominent difference between closed and open captions: closed captions are usually displayed on electronic devices that must be requested beforehand. This is what many movie theaters now are equipped with. Open captions are much like subtitles, they appear on the screen and cannot be turned off.

Open captions at the Tull Family Theater in Sewickley, PA.

Although closed-captioning may seem like a nice middle ground, there are many downfalls to this technology. As Ridloff explains, most of the time the devices don’t work. Then the viewer will have to go to the front desk to ask for help, “and by the time they figure it out that it’s not working-that it’s not going to be subtitled at all-the movie’s halfway done.” This is, unfortunately, a common experience, making it difficult for those who rely on closed-captioning to enjoy a film.

The lack of awareness and ability to participate in what many would call a “simple” activity, leaves the deaf community feeling as if they are an after-thought. The addition of open-captioning at theaters would thus cater towards the individual experience, while positively impacting the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.

This would become an even more positive experience if there was closer attention to captions. Many times in a film, there will be a lack of description; the specificity should be improved. For example, if a scene is playing a song behind it, some captions will provide, “Music Playing.” As Ridloff suggests in an interview with The New York Times, providing more information gives a better understanding of the scene and film as a whole: is the music happy? Sad? Scary? What kind of music is it?

Because of Ridloff and the recent increase in awareness, the implementation of open-captioning in movie theaters has already started to emerge. As of October 2021, AMC Theaters announced that 240 of its locations are adding open-captioning to certain showings. Moviegoers can then search for shows with open captions that are available for a mix of showtimes. AMC also suspects that once the popularity increases, they will be able to add more times and more options for people who want to watch a film with open captions.

As AMC is one of the major movie theater chains in the US, they now set a precedent for other theaters, ranging from large corporations to local businesses.

But still, there is a long way to go.

Unfortunately, the increase of activism can also lead to backlash, with movie theater fanatics wanting to keep the “purity” of the screen. Although subtitles or open captions are a preference for some people, it is prejudiced to disregard the importance of these tools as resources for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.

There is also the economic question that arises of whether or not adding open-captioned showings will be an extra cost. In short, these production companies and corporations are already paying for their movies to be captioned. The current technologies that exist in many movie theaters (the closed-caption electronic devices) are more expensive.

Other alternative technological contraptions are also much more costly. In 2013, Regal Cinemas bought Sony Entertainment Access Glasses; closed-captioning glasses that display the words in the glasses. This was not only expensive for the companies to implement, if you wanted to use the glasses, the user also had to pay between $8.50-$17.00. These glasses were also one-size-fits-all, making them exclusive for adults.

The Sony Entertainment Access Glasses

This is not to say that all movie showings should have captions, but more should.

The addition of open-captioning in movie theaters will overall make the experience more inclusive for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Lauren Ridloff is advocating for this implementation, in which Eternals will have open-caption options across the country.

As a whole, making movie theaters more accessible will allow these communities to see their representation on screen, and feel respected off the screen.

“It means my two boys, who are also deaf, will grow up in a world where there are superheroes who are deaf…it means they’ll be able to dream a bit more wildly.”

-Lauren Ridloff, interview with The New York Times



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