There’s a growing movement to make open-captioned (OC) film screenings more widely available for deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers, which would probably mean that some hearing moviegoers might occasionally, and possibly inadvertently, have to sit through a movie with on-screen subtitles they don’t need. Open captioning refers to dialogue that appears on the screen; closed captioning (CC) refers to the more common electronic devices — headsets, small displays that are mounted on the theater seat back, etc. — that are required by law to be made available for individual moviegoers upon request.
But those devices, which are notoriously cumbersome and prone to dead batteries and missing dialogue, are roundly derided by those who have to use them. Allie Serd, a Chicago-based moviegoer in her 30s who has worn hearing aids since she was 9 and who began using CC devices in 2013, says she has largely given up on them. A bad experience this spring at “Avengers: Endgame” may have been the last straw.
“I go to customer service and they never really do anything,” Serd says. “They just throw free movie tickets at me. This doesn’t really solve the problem. I let them go to waste.”
What’s more, convenient OC screenings can be nearly impossible to find. Under the theory that hearing audiences don’t want them, theaters often require a minimum number of tickets to be sold before they’ll even consider showing a movie with open captioning. And when they do so voluntarily, many won’t schedule them during prime moviegoing times — evenings and weekends.
In Washington, D.C. Council members Charles Allen, Anita Bonds, Brianne K. Nadeau and David Grosso have co-sponsored a bill that would change that. The Open Movie Captioning Requirement Act of 2018 would require D.C. theaters to offer open-captioned screenings at times when most people prefer to go to the movies. In a statement from the National Organization of Theatre Owners, spokesman Patrick Corcoran called the bill an “untested mandate,” noting that the movie theater business already operates on a thin profit margin. This summer, the trade organization, made up of independent theater operators and national chains, launched a pilot program increasing the number of open-captioned screenings at D.C. theaters to assess whether “the market can sustain a higher number of open-captioned screenings.”
But wait, that’s a good thing, right?
Not according to Erik Nordlof, the founder of the open-captioning advocacy group DC Deaf Moviegoers.
“On the face of it, the program is a good start to provide access voluntarily,” Nordlof says. “But it is ultimately a way to delay passage of legislation and to try to find justification to oppose it, especially considering that the program’s design ensures that the majority of OC screentimes are not available to most deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers.”
According to data collected by Nordlof’s group, during the first four weeks of the pilot program — which is scheduled to run through the end of the year — 60 percent of OC screenings were not held on Saturday and Sunday, and a majority of the weekday screenings were scheduled at inconveniently late or early times. Nordlof says he thinks that poor attendance at these screenings could be used as ammunition to defeat the bill.
Corcoran disputed Nordlof’s characterization, saying that nearly three-quarters of the OC shows were available during the evening and on weekends.
Tempers are boiling over.
In 2018, model, actor and deaf activist Nyle DiMarco tweeted an image of a closed-captioning device — obscuring a large chunk of the movie screen — with an invitation to retweet his post “if you prefer open captioning to this.”
A barrage of responses followed, including from many hearing moviegoers who simply don’t mind — or actively like — subtitles, and who use them at home. One such moviegoer, Sarah Feisthamel, an Albany, N.Y., resident whose post-traumatic stress disorder makes her sensitive to loud noises and who routinely uses captioning at home, recently started a petition on Change.org, asking Marvel Studios to release next year’s “Eternals” movie with open captioning — not just for some screenings, but for every single one.
When the casting of the 2020 film, about a race of superhumans, was confirmed at this year’s Comic-Con, there was huge excitement in the deaf community to see that Marvel had cast deaf actress Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, the first deaf superhero. In the comics, the character isn’t deaf — and is also a white man — but Ridloff, who is Mexican and black, will perform the role using sign language. Ridloff is also in “Sound of Metal,” a drama about a heavy metal drummer who is losing his hearing. That film made news at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where its use of captioning was praised as an artistic choice. The director, Darius Marder, has said that when the film is released, all screenings will be captioned.
“Right now, it looks like it’s for show, but that can still change,” she says.
But first, minds have to change.
When it comes to the District’s pending open-captioning legislation, council member Jack Evans was initially unequivocal in his denunciation, saying, “People don’t like to go to movies with captions, period,” according to Martin Austernuhle of WAMU. (Evans subsequently declared his “full support” of the bill.)
But who are these “people” Evans was talking about? Certainly not the deaf and hard of hearing, who have been closed out of movies for so long. And maybe not even people who, like my hearing friend Ellen, found that she had accidentally bought a ticket to an open-captioned screening this summer. After finding it annoyingly “distracting” for the first few minutes, she says she eventually got used to it.
That’s how all change happens — by small steps that, when strung together, become big ones. Of her “Eternals” petition, Feisthamel believes that a sea change may be coming.
“This is the movie,” she says, “that starts the revolution.”