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AMC bringing captions to big screens across the country

The movie chain will offer open captioning at 240 theaters, giving new accessibility to those who are deaf and hard of hearing

AMC Entertainment will begin offering open captioning at 240 locations, or roughly 40 percent of its U.S. theaters. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The world’s largest movie chain is bringing open captions to the big screen, creating more accessibility for people who are deaf and hard of hearing at a time when younger audiences are used to seeing the spoken word flash on their streaming and social media feeds.

AMC Entertainment said the rollout will cover 240 movie houses in 100 markets, or roughly 40 percent of the company’s U.S. theaters. The company said filmgoers will be able to find locations and showtimes on its app and website, and that availability could be adjusted based on audience demand and guest feedback. Some locations have open caption options available through the private theater rental program.

Efforts to make open captioning — dialogue and audio that appears on the screen — more readily available have been growing for years. Some experts estimate that roughly 48 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing.

But the move comes as people are simply more hardwired to having words flash on their screens — be it their social media feeds or the bottom of their newscasts. There’s subtitles from the rush of foreign language content and a flood of captioned videos on mobile devices.

Many hearing viewers have also opted to turn on captions while watching shows and movies at home, to focus their attention or to better understand layered plot twists and hushed character dialogue.

AMC said the open caption showtimes for new releases are intended to expand the moviegoing audience, including those for whom English is a second language.

“By adding open captions to the variety of presentation formats we offer, AMC locations become a more welcoming place for millions of Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as many for whom English is not their native language,” said Elizabeth Frank, AMC’s executive vice president of worldwide programming and chief content officer. “Initial consumer response has been very positive, and we anticipate strong demand with growing awareness of open caption showtimes at AMC.”

In a tweet announcing the expansion, AMC chief executive Adam Aron said he was proud that the company will offer some open caption showtimes each week. He described the move as a “real advance for those with hearing difficulties or where English is a second language.”

Aron noted that the initiative would arrive in time for showings of Marvel’s “Eternals,” which features the actress Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf and plays the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first deaf superhero.

At movie auditoriums, open captioning refers to audio that appears on the screen, and that can’t be turned off by viewers, whereas closed captioning refers to text displayed by electronic devices that include headsets and small screens that are mounted on the auditorium seat backs, and that are legally required to be made available for individual moviegoers upon request.

Though some industry players have cautioned that open captioning might turn away some viewers, many people in the hearing audience have increasingly relied on captions for their own enjoyment and comprehension.

Christian Vogler, a professor and director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University in D.C. that educates people who are deaf and hard of hearing, described AMC’s initiative as a “big deal.”

“AMC is the first major chain to do so, and moreover they are doing so voluntarily. Deaf and hard of hearing advocates have been asking for expanded access to open captions since forever,” he said. “To date, open-captioned shows have been far and few between, and often at inconvenient times.”

Regal Cinemas and Cinemark, two other large U.S. movie theater chains, did not respond to requests for comment.

Vogler added that in many other contexts, improving accessibility tends to improve the experiences of everyone, even members of the population who are not the primary target audience.

“Captions are so useful for so many scenarios that people just use them. Because of laws and regulations, captioning technology is now ubiquitous, and the prevalence of captioned content is also increasing because the technology is now everywhere,” he said.

The increased use of closed captioning at home also coincides with the technological development of dubbing.

Through the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, start-ups are aiming to improve the dubbing process to bring movies and TV shows into other languages more efficiently, and in a way that looks and sounds more natural.

As part of an emerging movement known as “auto-dubbing,” some tech and media companies are vying for a new, expanded market for international content where any video could, through the push of a button, be made available in a custom language.