Outgoing and friendly, Doug Muir, a 44-year-old government employee from Anaheim, used to go to the movies by himself. Born with what would become progressive hearing loss, he understood only bits and pieces of the dialogue. He didn’t want to depend on companions to translate for him. One solution was to go to foreign films, where he could follow the subtitles; or else he might wait, up to a year in some cases, for a movie to be captioned and released in video.
But that’s starting to change. Recently Muir joined dozens of deaf and hard of hearing people at an open-captioned screening of “The Scorpion King,” the popular action movie, at the AMC 30 in Orange. Unlike closed captions for TV, which display translations triggered by an electronic signal, every word of dialogue appeared as subtitles under the character speaking. Even background noises significant to the plot--whistle, grunt--were subtitled.
In the lobby afterward, fingers flew as new and old acquaintances greeted one another in sign language. Even those who didn’t care for action films were happy to have seen a recent hit movie, be able to understand it, and know they could come back any day of the year and watch an open-captioned film with hearing friends or family if they felt like it. “It feels great to have choices,” Muir said.
The increase of first-run open-captioned movies over the past several years has meant more than just entertainment to the estimated 28 million hearing-impaired Americans. Patrons and advocates say it has helped chip away at the isolation many endure. In the AMC lobby, Kathy Ivankay, a retired bookkeeper and independent living instructor for the deaf, said she and her husband of 36 years used to stay home watching TV or videos because of their hearing problems. Now, she said, “we’re dating again.”
Widespread distribution of first-run open-captioned films is credited largely to Burbank-based Tripod Captioned Films, a nonprofit organization with Hollywood connections.
In association with 10 studios and 35 theater chains, Tripod distributes open-captioned versions of new releases to deaf and hard of hearing audiences in the U.S., Canada and Australia. The studios provide the captioned prints, the result of an estimated two-week, $7,500-per-print process, and ship them.
Tripod--an offshoot of the Tripod School, which provides communication programs for deaf children--markets the films by identifying audiences, arranging special screenings in some cases, and training studios and theaters how to advertise to ensure the seats are filled.
Unlike television, neither movie studios nor theaters are required by law to provide captioning for patrons.
“We were the natural leaders who had entry to both the film industry and the deaf and hard of hearing communities,” Tripod executive director Nanci Linke-Ellis said. “It was a rather organic moment of serendipity.”
Since 1993, the voluntary partnership of advocates, studios and theaters has increased the public showings of first-run films like “A Beautiful Mind” and “Mission: Impossible 2" from zero to more than 50 films shown in 500 cities last year. Persuading studios and theaters to recognize the untapped audience has been an “uphill battle,” she said.
Most theaters still screen the open-captioned films sporadically and at odd times. Only five, including the AMC theater in Orange, show them every day on screens dedicated solely to captioned films. Advocates say there are not enough captioned prints and not enough theaters showing them at convenient times to meet the demand.
“The growth in the number of cities sounds phenomenal until you consider that today not a single city in the U.S. is showing an open-captioned version of the new blockbuster ‘Spider-Man,’” said Cheryl Heppner, chairwoman of the Coalition for Movie Captioning, which draws representatives from the nation’s top advocacy groups for the deaf and hard of hearing.
“A colleague visiting New York City went looking for an open-captioned movie and could find only one--playing at 10 a.m. on a Sunday,” said Tim Creagan, vice chairman of the coalition. “It shows you the distribution leaves a little bit to be desired.”
In Southern California, Tripod distributes films to theaters in 16 cities (see box on page 24).
Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said the studios are sensitive to the captioning issue. “Can it get better? Yes. Are studios moving in that direction? There’s progress.... It’s an evolutionary process.”
Some theaters are experimenting with other techniques, such as Rear Window Captioning. That system, developed by WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, displays reversed captions on a light-emitting diode, or LED, text display mounted in the rear of a theater. Patrons use panels attached to their seats to reflect the captions so that they appear superimposed on or beneath the movie screen. The reflective panels are portable, and used only by the caption user; hearing patrons do not see the captions, so the caption user can sit anywhere in the theater.
Mary Watkins, a WGBH media access specialist, said the public broadcasting station has pioneered technology in rear window and open captioning as well as a combined system that describes action, costumes and settings for the blind.
The combined systems are now available at 32 locations in Canada and the U.S., including the Bridge theater in Los Angeles, and the AMC theater in Sherman Oaks.
The benefits, tangible and intangible, of an ordinary outing to the movies are huge to the deaf and hard of hearing. Popular culture is rife with references to movies, and those without access experience the pain of a child who is always picked last for the team, said the coalition’s Creagan, a lawyer who has been hard of hearing since birth.
“Through captioning, you feel like part of the audience. You laugh with everybody else. You cry with everybody else. You’re included,” he said.
Brandie Aguado, a young mother and lifelong movie fan whose hearing was damaged by spinal meningitis when she was 1, said she is no longer frustrated by having to ask her mother and sisters what’s going on during a film.
Enthralled by “Scorpion King” star the Rock, she was seeing the movie for the second time. During the show, she and a girlfriend nudged each other and laughed when scantily clad women in a bazaar called out to the brawny character, “Hey, soldier, those big muscles look cramped. We can help you.”
In some cases, captions add information that isn’t in the original product, Creagan said.
One advertisement, for instance, explained in the captions that the background music had been composed by Aaron Copland. A “Star Trek” caption revealed a character’s first name, giving a hard of hearing person the edge in a trivia contest.
Captioned films allow deaf parents to monitor the movies their hearing children watch; they also let families with hearing and deaf members go out together to a show.
“The best experience I had was when my son was 9 and saw ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” said Megan Williams, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles. “He had seen it without subtitles, then a special screening with captions. When he came out of that theater, he was radiant. His hands were flying a mile a minute. ‘Did you know his dog’s name was Indiana?’ ‘Did you know they were looking for the Holy Grail?’ It was so exciting for him to be able to comprehend it,” she said.
Tripod Captioned Films evolved from the advocacy of Williams and film producer Michael Shamberg, parents of a deaf son, Jacob. They had started several programs at Tripod School, which is now part of the Burbank Unified School District. To raise funds for their projects, they held a premiere in 1983 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with captioned and non-captioned versions of Shamberg’s film “The Big Chill.”
The showing generated so much excitement that they took the captioned print, and others following subsequent annual benefits, on a nationwide tour.
Later, Barbara Montan, wife of a Disney executive, and Linke-Ellis, a hearing-impaired administrator, joined forces to obtain more prints and more showings.
“We were really lucky,” Williams said. “Studios were very generous in helping us get films captioned and shipping them, especially in the early days when we didn’t have a structure for it. It was just an idea.”
Now, coalition chief Heppner said, studios and theaters are under new economic pressures, and are resisting expansion to year-round dedicated screens or regular screenings of captioned films. “The movie studios and theater owners understandably want to maximize their profits. They claim that open captioning has a negative effect on box office sales because people find the captions distracting. Our coalition contends that no formal or independent studies or testing support this claim,” Heppner said.
Two years ago, advocates for the hearing impaired lost a bid to force Oregon theaters to provide captioning. Now the coalition is encouraging states to require captioning in theaters. So far, only Connecticut has addressed the issue. As a result of public hearings, Creagan said a statewide trial program, in which theaters with more than 10 screens voluntarily show captioned movies regularly, is still in effect.
In Creagan’s view, captions are like wheelchair ramps--an accommodation that able-bodied people eventually accepted. People are already getting used to captioning on television sets at home and in restaurants, health clubs, bars and other noisy public places, he said. Museums and opera houses also provide captions and subtitles.
The debate over captioning may change with the advent of digital technology, expected within five years.
As with DVDs, digital movies could have separate tracks with captions in a variety of languages, accessible with the flick of a switch. Linke-Ellis is working to ensure that captioning capabilities are included in hardware and software digital programs.
“This audience is not going away,” she said, because the huge baby boom generation is quickly losing its hearing.
“The incidence of hearing loss is one in 10 until age 65,” Creagan said. “Then it’s one in three.”
Where to Find Open-Captioned Films
Open-captioned films are shown exclusively in only five cities in the U.S.: San Diego and Orange; Phoenix; Rochester, N.Y.; and Olathe, Kansas.
AMC 30 at the Block
20 City Blvd. West
AMC Fashion Valley 18
7037 Friars Road
Theaters in hundreds of cities, however, have dedicated certain days of the week to show open-captioned films. In Southern California, they include:
Loews Magic Johnson Theatre
4020 Marlton Avenue
AMC Media Center
201 E. Magnolia Avenue., No. 345
Camarillo Palace Cinema 12
680 Ventura Blvd.
AMC Covina 30
1414 N. Azusa Ave.
Edwards Westpark 8 Cinema
3755 Alton Parkway
Cinemark Movies 12
44790 Valley Central Way
2600 W. Ave I
AMC Marina Pacifica 12
6436 E. Pacific Coast Highway
AMC Pine Square 16
245 Pine Ave., Suite 100
UA Long Beach Marketplace
6601 E. Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Theatres Manhattan
3560 Sepulveda Blvd.
Pacific Theatres Northridge
19401 Parthenia Street
AMC Ontario Mills 30
4549 Mills Circle
1701 W. Katella Ave.
in the Riverside Marketplace
4040 Vine St.
Stadium 14 Cinema
8032 Limonite Ave.
Edwards San Marcos
Stadium 18 Cinema
1180 W. San Marcos Blvd.
7000 Northgate Drive
916 State St.
Lynn Smith is a Times staff writer.