Movie Magic for the Hearing Impaired

A simple, inexpensive closed-captioning system exists that would allow millions to go to the cinema. Why,then, is it so rare?

By Suzanne Robitaille

A few months ago, I drove to New Jersey to see Jurassic Park III at a cinema with an innovative closed-captioning system for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. The movie provided for a nice night out. But something didn't add up. The U.S. has more than 6,500 movie theaters, but only 16 are outfitted with closed captioning. I'm hearing-impaired, and a question lingered in my mind: "Why isn't the technology available everywhere?"

It's not that difficult to install a captioning system. The Plexiglass device looks like a rear-view mirror that fits into a viewer's cup holder and reflects words from a display board in the back of the theater. (See BW Online, 8/22/01, "Read Any Good Movies Lately?") Nor is it expensive to install -- a theater can be outfitted for this "rear-window" captioning system for around $10,000. But of all the major theater chains, only the midsize national circuit General Cinemas has embraced it.


  To me, this is a critical measure of how the U.S. movie industry regards persons with disabilities. Ambiguous language in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act excuses the industry from having to install such a system. Under the ADA, theaters are considered "public venues" and are required to present some kind of accommodation -- but closed captioning is one of several ways that movie houses are allowed to slide. Most theaters can get by with just audio enhancements, which do little for people who must lip-read or use sign language to communicate.

Selling the idea to both the movie studios and exhibitors has proven to be one of the biggest challenges for the Motion Picture Access Project (Mopix) in Boston, which co-developed rear-window captioning with inventor Rufus Butler Seder. "It's a chicken-and-egg situation," says Mary Watkins, outreach manager for Boston's Media Access Group, which runs Mopix. "Movie theaters want more films that are closed captioned. Then they will consider installing the systems, while the studios say they want a larger installation base before they pay to caption more films."

Theaters complain that times are too tough to spend the extra money. In the last year or so, many of the country's largest chains have been struggling. Lowe's Cinema filled for Chapter 11 protection in February. United Artists and Regal Cinema, the nation's largest, have been bought and reorganized. Even General Cinema is under the gun. It has closed 60 of its 130 locations, which means that deaf and hard-of-hearing people now have even fewer spots where they can catch a flick.


  Meanwhile, the $7 billion motion picture industry looks at the travails of the movie chains and worries that it may not be able to attract the volume needed to sustain Hollywood's enormous production costs. Major studios also have to foot the bill for the initial captioning costs, about $2,500 a title.

The industry isn't the only party reluctant to embrace closed captioning when the lights go down. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers balk at it also. They want open captioning that's up on the screen for everyone to see. Hollywood has always stood firmly against open captions, arguing that they would drive away hearing viewers, who would instead come to the movies only on the days the captions weren't shown.

"We don't ask hearing-impaired people to go to the movies on certain days. It's inconvenient and not consistent," says Jeff Blake, vice-president for international distribution with Sony Entertainment, which owns Columbia Pictures.


  Speculating on the impact of digital film's advent, General Cinema spokesperson Brian Callahan says: "It's possible we could one day just flick a button to add open captions on-screen.... No one is in a position to spend $10,000 on a technology [rear-window captioning] that might be obsolete in a few years."

But let's face it: Rear-window captioning is as about as close to open captioning as you're going to get at the movies, without adding costly equipment and disrupting other viewers' experience. All the more reason for movie houses to embrace the technology.

"I saw the promise of [rear-window captioning] right away," says Sony's Blake. "For the first time, film could be accessible at any time. We'd never successfully solved that problem before." Sony Pictures hits such as Charlie's Angels, Mask of Zorro, Big Daddy, Stuart Little, and The Patriot were all sent to have their scripts set to rear-window captioning.


  More cumbersome inventions like virtual goggles have been pushed aside. So has the BackSeat Display, which is now installed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The device uses vacuum fluorescent display, which is mounted on the seat in front of the viewer, but it requires costly wiring, and viewers also have to find specific seats -- hardly an easy feat inside a dark movie theater, minutes before a film begins.

Rear-window captioning should be a no-brainer at cinemas across the country. It's available in select Walt Disney Theme Park attractions at Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom, but both Disney and Dreamworks will say only that they're still considering the technology for broader use.

The result is that popular, animated movies like Dreamworks' Shrek and Disney's Atlantis aren't accessible to deaf people. But even if Disney has to pay for every title to be captioned, the efforts don't go to waste because the same transcript also can be used for DVDs and home videos, which are cash generators for studios.


  For movie chains struggling to attract audiences, rear-window captioning is their best hope for pulling in the 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in America. And this is a growing group -- as the population ages and life expectancy grows, the need for closed captioning will become even more evident.

Even as far back as 1981, you could rent Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The China Syndrome with captions if your television had a decoder. (Closed captions can be viewed only with a decoder -- the "CC 1" button on your remote control or TV menu.) For a small investment, rear-window captioning could pull more customers with disabilities off their living-room sofas and into movie houses. The industry shouldn't make the deaf and hard-of-hearing wait any longer.

Robitaille is a BusinessWeek Online correspondent based in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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