Major news outlets reported recently that AMC is providing open captions in over 200 of their theaters. Open captioning is text for the deaf or hard of hearing that is up on the screen for all viewers to see; it provides not only dialogue but also sound effects and music descriptions.
Currently, deaf and hard of hearing movie viewers have a couple of accessibility tools available to them in the many theaters that provide closed captioning for patrons who request access.
Some theaters provide a mirror that fits in your cup holder. It reflects captions that are projected backwards on the back wall of the theater. Others provide closed-caption stands, which are small LED screens that fit into your cup holder. Sounds better than the mirror, but it’s not as reliable. They have a history of presenting a slight delay in relation to what’s happening on the screen. And if something goes wrong, the viewer has to get assistance from staff. Not only is this annoying, it also cuts into movie-watching time. In both these cases, the words do not appear on the movie screen.
AMC’s move simplifies the movie going experience for the deaf and hard of hearing. Instead of theater goers having to research or arrange for closed-caption stands or mirrors, they can simply look to see which showings of a particular film are provided with open captioning.
And this may be a brilliant business move for AMC, because this doesn’t just help deaf or hard of hearing. It is a feature with universal application, and it comes at a time when theaters need to bring patrons back. During the pandemic, most of us grew accustomed to viewing films in our homes, –and due to a variety of reasons, many of us started using closed captioning and subtitles on a regular basis. Moreover, many people say they are okay with captions because it is no different from social media where captions are commonplace. You could even say this move is really just a way of keeping up with the times.
With this added feature, AMC is also broadening their market among non-English speakers and ESL patrons. It is common for non-native English speakers to use closed captioning to help them better understand what is being said on the screen. For the Spanish-speaking community―including my own, the captions bolster their comprehension of the dialogue. Even when their vocabulary is limited, they can confirm the few words they know.
As foreign films and content continue to become more widespread, such as was the case with Squid Game, for instance, studios and theaters may start to bring subtitled films out of the arthouse theaters and into the mainstream. Swap those subtitles for captions, and theaters have even more ways to bring patrons back. The combinations include translated captions (serving the function of both subtitles and captions) and captions reflecting dubbed audio. Either way, accessibility is the way to go.
In the end, this development is a huge step forward to making broadly accessible films easier to find. AMC, as the largest chain in the country, has put the concept squarely in the mainstream and ahead of what current law requires. That means other theater franchises won’t take long to follow suit. Providing this service does not require any further infrastructure or equipment investment, so even smaller chains and independent theaters can easily adopt it. And because of the pandemic, the audience for captions is larger than ever before. Popcorn, anyone?