Black Panther is shattering records and has become one of the most talked about movies in cinema history. From its box office receipts to its role in representation and breaking stereotypes, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has audiences and critics cheering.
Sadly, that’s not true for everyone, as some people have had poor experiences in their attempts to see the movie. No, I’m not talking about racists and white supremacists, but those barred from enjoying this film: the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.
Recently, Deaf celebrity and activist, Nyle DiMarco, posted a tweet about a poor experience he had when he tried to see Black Panther.
Understandably, Mr. DiMarco was upset that he was forced to use a device that blocks the screen and doesn’t even provide accurate or consistent captioning. Not to mention, upon leaving the movie early and requesting a refund, AMC refused and instead gave him two passes for a future film.
After all, what better way to compensate someone who can’t enjoy your movie than letting them not enjoy it two more times down the road.
To be fair, this has nothing to do with Black Panther, but with a real struggle that D/HH people have when they want to enjoy the movie experience alongside everyone else. What makes this struggle worse, though, is the technology or options exist to make movies more accessible.
The big movie chains, however, just don’t want to be bothered.
One option is to upgrade the technology to something better than the CaptiView device, which is the primary technology movie theaters use. CaptiView was touted as an excellent option for D/HH viewers, replacing the old Rear Window system, to the point that governments even dedicated funding so movie theaters could purchase them.
Sadly, these devices are about as successful and useful as the LaserDisc or Zune, and are almost a decade old. They’re distracting, block the screen, cause eye strain and headaches, take up your cup holder, don’t work well for tall people or kids, etc.
Worse, the CaptiView doesn’t even guarantee accurate captioning, as Mr. DiMarco noted; they’re notorious for skipping dialogue, jumbling words, or even censoring foul language. The experience is less like watching captions on a DVD and more like live captioning on broadcast TV or YouTube, all the errors and fails included.
Instead of using an archaic, and botched, attempt at accessibility, which was probably hyped just to make Doremi Labs (now a subsidiary of Dolby) money, movie theaters should be using the latest tech.
For example, several years after the CaptiView came out, some theaters began using Entertainment Access Glasses. These devices project captioning for the movie directly onto the lens, so the viewer can see the words without looking away from the screen.
These glasses are a step forward, especially as they wirelessly connect to the movie’s file, allowing direct access to its captions. Also, they’re adjustable, allowing you to pick the right focal length for your eyes, and they can be used with 3-D lenses.
Unfortunately, they’re not perfect, and some users have problems with them, particularly people who wear glasses or have sight problems. The captions may blend in with the movie’s colors or lay across actors’ faces, and there are some who’ve experienced the same inaccurate or dropped captioning.
Still, these Access Glasses are much more ideal than the CaptiView, and some theater chains have already decided to upgrade their technology. Of course, they wouldn’t have to if they picked the best option for accessibility: open captioning.
For those that don’t know the difference between closed and open captioning, it’s just whether the words can be turned off or not. Open-captioned movies mean the captions are part of the film, usually along the lower portion of the screen, like a DVD that’s permanently on.
Some theaters offer open-captioned screenings, but they’re rare in both locations and screenings. I live in a major metropolitan area with a sizable Deaf community, and yet only two theaters (both an hour’s drive away) offer open captioning, and not one has any screenings scheduled over the next month.
There is no valid excuse for not offering an open captioned screening at least once a week, especially for blockbuster films. The justifications by some theaters about losing money because “hearing people won’t attend” are garbage.
First, if you have several screens showing a movie a half-dozen times a day, you can set aside one screening a week with open captioning. In fact, choosing a low-volume time (like a matinee) might bring you more money as D/HH people would show.
Second, most hearing people don’t care if there are words on the screen or not. In fact, some prefer captions, because they allow them to catch a word or phrase they might have missed.
A once-a-week matinee with open captioning is not going to cost the theaters much (if anything), and it would provide access to millions.
Now, before some readers decide to take the Devil’s Advocate route, or just show their outright audism/ableism, let me warn against statements like this person:
Being Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing shouldn’t exclude you from the same past times as everyone else. We know our limitations, but that doesn’t mean we’re asking too much for something as simple as the above.
Not to mention, there’s far more of us than you think – these are not the demands of a small portion of the population (as if numbers matter when it comes to ethics and basic humanity). Current estimates suggest that 20% of Americans suffer some form of hearing loss.
Those numbers mean almost 50 million people could benefit from accessible theater experiences. That’s a lot of movie tickets and concession stand purchases that these theaters are entirely ignoring.
Not to mention, there’s also something called the ADA which requires accessibility when feasible. That’s why the DoJ enacted a regulation requiring digital movie theaters (the vast majority now) to have ample captioning devices available.
Sadly, this regulation doesn’t require open captioning and most theaters will continue to use the out-of-date CaptiView devices. Like Hollywood and representation (until recently), there is little motivation to put ethics over business, despite the social push and possible economic advantages.
What we need are stronger laws that force theaters to provide regular open captioned screenings, use the latest in technology, and guarantee all devices are in working order. Some states have already begun this movement, with Hawaiʻi the first to require open captioning.
We may have to wait on the federal level, however, given how our current government is treating (and gutting) the ADA.
I stand with Nyle DiMarco and the millions of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing who are tired of being excluded from great films like Black Panther. It’s time the movie industry progresses as much in accessibility as it’s doing in representation.
Maybe we can help them shatter new records in attendance and break the stereotype that open captioning doesn’t sell.
Or at least take a step forward toward opening up the movie-going experience to a significant portion of the population.