Posted on February 20, 2011 by John Waldo
Regal Cinemas, the nation’s largest movie-theater chain, has committed that as it converts its first-run movie theaters to digital projection, it will provide the necessary equipment to display closed captions for all showings of all movies for which the studios have provided captions.
Regal began that process in the greater Seattle area, where it has made all the auditoriums at its Auburn, Thornton Place, Landing and Bella Bottega complexes caption-capable.
As of today (Feb. 20), Regal is showing seven captioned movies at the Bella Bottega complex in Redmond, seven captioned movies at the Landing complex in Renton, eight at its complex in Auburn and ten at its Thornton Place complex in north Seattle.
The captioning pledge came in the form of a declaration from Regal chief operating officer Randy Smith submitted as part of Wash-CAP’s ongoing litigation in King County, Washington, against the corporate theater owners that operate in the Seattle area. The case had been scheduled to go to trial in March of this year. Regal sought to avoid the trial by making a commitment to provide captioning.
Notably, Smith’s statement did not just apply to the Regal theaters that are involved in the Seattle lawsuit. What he said was that as Regal converts theaters to digital projection, it will provide captioning capabilities, including at its Seattle theaters. The Seattle area appears to be the first location where this commitment has been implemented, at least in part.
Regal has in the past shown open captioned movies at a small number of its theaters. Regal believes that open captions, visible to the entire audience, are distracting and undesirable to hearing patrons. Therefore, it activates the open captioning only for a very few showings, generally at less-than-ideal times.
Closed captions are visible only to patrons who request and use a viewing device. Because closed captioning does not interfere with the movie-going experience of others, the theaters are willing to engage the captions for all showings.
Regal is apparently using a new device to show closed-captioned movies. The viewing device is attached to a gooseneck that fits into the seat cup holder. Unlike the more familiar Rear Windows system where captions are displayed in mirror image on an LED reader-board fixed to the rear wall of the theater and viewed on a reflector, the captions are transmitted wirelessly. This has the advantage of making the system equally usable from every seat in the theater, and it is also not subject to interruption if somebody stands up behind the viewer. The disadvantage, though, is that unlike the transparent Rear Window reflector that can be superimposed on the movie screen, the viewing device is solid. That means it has to be placed below or to the side of the screen, which means the captions and the movie are in different lines of sight, or the viewing device blocks some of the picture, not unlike the captions we seen on television.
Eyewear that displays captions is in the development stage. It is currently not available commercially, but may be developed and marketed in the future, and that may provide a better viewing experience than the devices that are now available.
At present, there is no well-developed technology for showing captions with 3-D movies, so most of the movies without captions at the Regal complexes are 3-D. Captions are provided by the studios, not by the theaters, and while most of the major-studio first-run releases are captioned, some are not, most notably (and ironically), “The King’s Speech.” So it appears to me that the Regal theaters that have provided full captioning capability are showing closed captions for all the movies that have captions available.
Regal is tying the provision of closed captioning to its program to convert its first-run theaters to digital projection, where film is replaced by digital data packages. Regal has converted all of its first-run theater complexes in King County to digital projection, and evidently plans to add captioning capability to the complexes in Issaquah, Bellevue, Tukwila and downtown Seattle that presently lack it.
Regal is following the same path as Cinemark/Century, the nation’s third-largest theater owner, which has equipped all of the auditoriums at its two Washington complexes — one in Federal Way and one in Olympia — to show closed-captioned movies. Cinemark has essentially done everything we asked for in the lawsuit, and it appears the Regal will do so as well. We haven’t received any specific information that Cinemark plans to equip its theaters in other parts of the country to show captions, but we would be surprised if they don’t do that, because it would be difficult to explain how it was economically possible to offer full access in Washington but not possible to do so in other areas.
Lincoln Square in Bellevue has also committed to provide closed captioning in all of its theaters. In the interim, it is showing many of its movies with open captions at selected times.
The holdout new in our Seattle case is AMC, the nation’s second-largest theater chain. It is taking the position that it should only be required to do what the federal Department of Justice may direct as part of the ongoing rule-making process. We don’t think that is a viable argument. DOJ’s proposal to require captioning for only 50% of the movies being shown at a given location has come under withering fire, and DOJ has provided at least some circumstantial indication that it will either jettison that proposal altogether or, at the very least, defer to court interpretations of what it is reasonable to expect each theater chain to do.
I’m aware that many of us with hearing loss would prefer open captioning. Unfortunately, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the implementing regulations make it quite clear that private businesses like theaters can choose the kind of accommodation they wish to provide, and the theaters have not been willing to provide open captioning, at least not for every showing. But there does not appear to be any legally viable way to require open captions.
I don’t give up hope completely — we may be able to persuade at least some theaters to voluntarily offer occasional open-captioned showings, perhaps upon request from some number of patrons. But rather than lament the absence of open captioning, I think we should direct our energies to working cooperatively with the theaters on finding the most effective means of showing closed-captioned movies.
The dominoes appear to be falling, and universal access to the movies may be a reality in very short order.
– Thanks to NVRC, Fairfax (2/20/11)