Cinema Captioning in the USA

I am currently lucky enough that my hearing loss does not mean I cannot enjoy a trip to the cinema (and I go a lot) without subtitles/captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing but given a choice I would absolutely prefer it. Being a fan of writer Aaron Sorkin and his often wordy plays and screenplays I knew I wouldn’t want to miss a word of The Social Network and so I attended a subtitled screening. In the screening I attended the subtitles were perfect quality and in sync. I was grateful that a subtitled screening was available. True access to the cinema. There is some way to go though – in some UK locations the choice of times to attend subtitled screenings is not always ideal (for example weekdays during the day is difficult to attend if you work during those hours). There are multiple reasons for that and if anyone finds their local cinema is only showing screenings at a time that you cannot attend contact them and let them know otherwise this will likely not change. But access *is* being provided and it is a fantastic start. I only wish subtitled cinema screenings had been available to me as a child. I might well have enjoyed Disney animation far more than I did – lip-reading a cartoon is kind of difficult!

Subtitles/captions and cinema is something that has recently made headlines over in the USA involving a lawsuit against a cinema chain that is not providing captioned movies. On November 30th 2010 the following statement was released:

The Association of Late-Deafened Adults (ALDA) and two additional plaintiffs, ALDA members Linda Drattell and Rick Rutherford, filed a lawsuit today against Cinemark USA, Inc. in California’s Alameda Superior Court for Cinemark’s failure to provide accessibility through captioned movies. The suit alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act and Disabled Persons Act.
ALDA is being represented by Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a non-profit disability rights firm headquartered in Berkeley, California that specializes in high-impact cases on behalf of people with disabilities.

This past summer, the nation celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet I still can’t see movies at my local Cinemark theater with my family and friends,” said Linda Drattell, ALDA’s President. “It’s extremely frustrating for me and for others who lost their hearing and depend primarily on visual information.”
“We just want the opportunity to go to the movies with our friends and family like everybody else,” explained Rick Rutherford who lives in El Cerrito. “By failing to screen captioned films, movie theaters like Cinemark are denying me an experience I thoroughly enjoyed before the onset of hearing loss.”
“The theaters’ unwillingness to screen captioned films is short-sighted, particularly as the hearing loss community continues to grow,” noted Kevin Knestrick, an attorney representing the Plaintiffs. “The technology is readily available, and financially it is a drop in the bucket for theater chains like Cinemark to provide this service for men, women, and children with hearing loss.”
According to the National Association of Theater Owners, Cinemark USA, Inc. is the nation’s third largest chain in the U.S. and Canada with 3,825 screens at 293 sites as of June 24, 2010. In 2009 movie theaters in the U.S. earned $10.6 billion at the box office.
A ruling this year in the Ninth Circuit stated that closed captioning technology is a valid “auxiliary aid” mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet Cinemark has not taken steps to provide caption accessibility to its patrons with hearing loss.
Movies in theaters can be made accessible to deaf and hard of hearing individuals through open, closed or individual display captions.
Open captions are ones that cannot be turned off, such as subtitles on foreign films.
Closed captions are those which, as on television, can be turned on or off like the subtitles on television, and are now available through caption projection systems and new digital movies which require no special equipment or cost. More and more movie theaters are making the conversion to digital movie technology.
Individual captions are viewed only by people who have special equipment such as Rear Window Captioning or special glasses.


To my knowledge cinema subtitling in the UK is not done through Rear Window Captioning (RWC) in any cinema and different digital equipment is used to display what is described above as open captions. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in use. Here’s a very detailed description:

What is the Rear Window Captioning system?

The patented Rear Window system is a technology that makes it possible for exhibitors to provide closed captions for those who need or desire them without displaying the captions to the entire audience and without the need for special prints or separate screenings. Developed in the early 1990s with the assistance of grants from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), the system was first deployed at the National Air & Space Museum’s IMAX® theater in December of 1994.

How does it work?
The Rear Window Captioning system displays reversed captions on a light-emitting diode (LED) text display, which is mounted in the rear of a theater. Patrons use transparent acrylic panels attached to their seats (either with a flowerpot-shaped base designed to fit into a drink holder on most theater seats or with a clamp that attaches to the armrest) or on freestanding floor stands (like a microphone stand). The acrylic panels reflect the captions so that they appear superimposed on or beneath the movie screen. The reflective panels are portable and adjustable, enabling the user to sit anywhere in the theater and to either superimpose the captions over the film image or position the captions above or below the movie screen, depending on preference.

How do Rear Window captions differ from open captions?

Open captions are similar to subtitles. They are “burned” onto the film and are visible to everyone in the theater. To provide open captions, it is necessary for studios to create, and for exhibitors to obtain, a special print of the film. Open-captioned films are generally presented at special screenings.
The Rear Window system is a way of providing closed captions. The captions are not on the film itself, so there is no need for a special print. The captions are on a floppy disk or CD that plays in synchronization with the film and can be made visible — via a reflector — to only those patrons who choose to see them. The captions are available during each regularly scheduled presentation for as long as the film plays in the equipped theater (not all films are presently closed-captioned).

How are the captions synchronized to the film?

The synchronization process differs depending on whether the system is being used in a conventional movie theater or specialty theater (e.g., IMAX® or other large-format theaters or theme parks’ theatrical attractions). In conventional movie theaters, captions are transmitted to the LED panel by the Digital Theater Systems (DTS) digital audio system, which provides multi-channel digital audio on CD-ROMs. The caption data resides on an additional CD-ROM that plays in synchronization with the digital audio disks in a DTS player (model DTS 6D, with additional models soon to be available). A “reader head” (a sensing device) attached to the film projector reads a timecode track printed on the film and signals the DTS player to play the audio and captions in synchronization with the film. In turn, the DTS player sends the captions to the LED display. In specialty theaters, caption data is fed to the LED panel by a computer with special software that synchronizes the caption files to the film.

What specialized equipment is needed to provide Rear Window captions?

In order to provide Rear Window captions, the theater must purchase and mount — in the rear of the theater — a light-emitting diode (LED) text panel or “datawall,” which displays reverse captions. This component must be 32 characters wide and 3 rows tall. The characters, or letters, that make up each row are 3.2 inches or 4.1 inches tall depending on the size of the auditorium and the distance people will be sitting from the datawall. A theater also must purchase either portable seat-mounted or freestanding reflectors on which patrons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can read the reverse text from the LED panel. The reflector component consists of a 3/16-inch thick transparent or semi-transparent acrylic panel, which is approximately 4 inches tall by 12 inches wide, attached to a flexible, 12 to 18-inch-long gooseneck arm.

How much does it cost a theater to install Rear Window?

The cost of installing the Rear Window Captioning system varies from theater to theater based on factors such as theater size and existing equipment. The number and style of reflectors that a theater chooses to purchase also will affect the overall cost. The basic cost of the LED datawall is estimated at approximately $4,000 for conventional theaters and $8,000 for large specialty theaters (IMAX®). The cost per reflector is approximately $80; theaters that have installed the system have initially purchased 12 reflectors at $50 apiece. The DTS 6D player, which many theaters already have available, costs $6,000 if purchased separately. Installation costs depend on the theater’s maintenance arrangements; arrangements for installation can be made with the equipment supplier.

Will installation require any alteration to existing facilities? If so, what types of alterations need to be made?

In order to provide Rear Window captions, the facility will need to acquire and mount a light-emitting diode (LED) display mechanism to the wall in the rear of the theater. Mounting hardware is required, which is able to support a 30- to 50-pound datawall, that is 3- to 5-feet-long and 1.5- to 2-feet-high. The LED display requires standard electrical service and a data signal fed to it from the projection booth. The reflectors may be mounted to theater seats via existing or added drink holders. Theaters without drink holders can purchase reflectors fitted with a clamp or mounted on freestanding microphone stands. Some theaters have fitted seats with a mounting bracket that enables the bottom of the gooseneck arm to be fitted directly into an area between each seat.

Will additional electrical service be needed to accommodate Rear Window?

The LED display requires a standard electrical outlet.

How many equipped seats or equipment attachments need to be available?

It is recommended that theaters purchase a number of reflectors equal to approximately 4% of a theater’s seating capacity.

Are special seats necessary?

The installation of special theater seats is not required for use of Rear Window captions. The seat-mounted reflectors can be fitted to standard theater seats using the drink holder or armrest, while freestanding reflectors can be used in theaters without drink holders.

Are both fixed and portable reflectors available to accommodate different types of seating? Or is there a standard design that works with any kind of seat?

The reflectors are presently available in three styles. The portable, seat-mounted model consists of a movable, acrylic screen on an adjustable gooseneck arm that can be fitted to any theater seat that has a built-in drink holder. The clamp model can be used to attach the gooseneck to the armrest of seats without drink holders. The freestanding device is mounted on a floor stand (similar to a microphone stand), which can be placed adjacent to any type of theater seat, but is most effective when used on a level floor. To accommodate patrons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and use wheelchairs, theaters may opt to order several clamp or freestanding reflectors.

Are the reflectors easy to use, attach and adjust?

The screens are portable and simple to use; the seat-mounted reflector is easily mounted in the drink holder or on the seat arm, while the freestanding reflector is placed beside the viewer’s seat. In any case, the gooseneck arm and tilting acrylic panel can be adjusted until the captions are visible and comfortable to watch. Test captions are generally made available before the film begins to enable Rear Window users to adjust their reflectors. Depending on the user’s preference, captions can be positioned over or just below the movie screen. Some users have reported that reflectors work best when positioned low and further away from the body, allowing the user to move in the seat with only minimal reflector adjustments.

Are the reflectors adjustable for both child and adult users?

The reflective screens can be adjusted for use by both children and adults. There is no height restriction, though children or very short adults may require assistance in bending the reflector arm into place.

Do users need to sit in certain seats in order to use the Rear Window?

The Rear Window system is designed so that the captions are visible from any seat in the theater. However, depending on the size and layout of the theater and the location of the caption display, some seats may offer better viewing angles than others may. Seats in the middle of the theater generally offer the best view of Rear Window captions. Some LED displays have been mounted above an auditorium’s balcony, thereby making the seats directly underneath the balcony unusable with a reflector.

Can another patron’s head block the user’s view of the captions?

Because the captions are displayed in the rear of the theater, someone sitting in front of the user cannot block them. The LED display can be hung high enough so that the heads of tall people behind the user will not block the view of the captions. However, if someone behind the user stands up, they may temporarily block the captions — just as someone who stands up in front of a viewer may temporarily block the picture.

Can the reflectors block the view of, or be distracting to, other patrons?

As the clear acrylic reflector is adjusted for use by individual patrons, and only those patrons can see the reflection, the use of the Rear Window system will not affect other patrons’ views of the movie screen in any way.

Do the reflectors block the user’s view of the screen in any way?

Since the reflector is made of clear acrylic, the user can see through the reflective panel to the screen, or can adjust the reflector so the captions appear below the screen. If the reflector is not adjusted properly, a user’s head may block his or her own view of the captions. In this case, the user will need to move the reflector slightly to one side or tilt the plastic panel until their view is complete.

How do users know when Rear Window is available in a theater?

Theaters that have made the Rear Window Captioning system available to their patrons have publicized the service to build awareness in their community. Publicity generally includes posting appropriate signage at ticket booths, including information in theater advertising. When the service is offered initially, theaters often publicize the system’s availability via announcements to local newspapers and to local organizations and schools that serve deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

Is there an additional cost to moviegoers to use Rear Window?

Moviegoers who request use of the Rear Window Captioning equipment pay the regular adult, child or senior ticket prices, with no additional costs.

SOURCE: Caption THIS! (via DRA)

If you read all that, well done! But seriously, this made me a little curious as to how many technical options cinemas in the USA might be using to provide the service and found a great write-up here.

Which option would you prefer if you had the choice?

On a related note, in the summer earlier this year the US Department of Justice gave an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) which outlines several proposals it is considering that will have an impact on the amount of captioned/subtitled cinema (and also audio description) in the USA. Amongst the questions is the best technology to deliver the service:

The Department is considering proposing that 50% of movie screens would offer captioning and video description 5 years after the effective date of the regulation. The Department originally requested guidance on any such figure in its 2008 NPRM. Individuals with disabilities, advocacy groups who represented individuals with disabilities, and eleven State Attorneys General advocated that the Department should require captioning and video description 100% of the time. Representatives from the movie industry did not want any regulation regarding captioning or video description. A representative of a non-profit organization recommended that the Department adopt a requirement that 50% of movies being exhibited be available with captioning and video description. The Department seeks further comment on this issue and is asking several questions regarding how such a requirement should be framed.

For all the comments being requested read section IV.

Interesting times ahead. I shall look forward to updates on this. I am hopeful for a positive outcome for all who require or need captioning to enjoy the cinema. As a big cinema goer I can’t think of anything more depressing than the inability to access the latest movie releases just because of a lack of captions or subtitles.  Be sure to check out the links on this blog on the right –> under Cinema for information on captioned/subtitled cinema in the UK, USA, and Australia. If you know of any other links please comment so I can add it.  Thanks.