Janice Cobb is a big film fan. But she never goes to a movie theater.
Cobb, who is deaf, misses the day when, thanks to open captioning, she could go to theaters with her husband, Donald, and her son, John, and see the latest releases.
“I really loved captioned movies because I could understand what the movie was about,” Cobb said. “I rarely missed any of the movies.”
Now the only time Janice and Donald, both deaf, go to the theater is to drop off their son who is not deaf. In Columbia, Forum 8 Theater and Hollywood Stadium 14 theaters sporadically showed open-captioned movies from 1996 to 2000 upon requests from local deaf organizations until they stopped the service due to cost of showings and low attendance. Now Cobb and Donald have to wait for the movies to come out on VHS or DVD, or drive to St. Ann or Olathe, Kan.
“The movie theaters do provide an accessibility for wheelchairs, but they are forgetting us,” Cobb said, an MU graduate student and deaf advocate at LEAD institute, a deaf advocate organization that provides services for deaf individuals in Missouri.
The most common way for people with hearing disabilities to access visual media such as films is through captions. Screen-based captioning such as open captioning shows movie’s dialogue, noises and sound effects in white text and superimposes it over screen images. Seat-based captioning, such as Rear Window, displays reversed captions on a light-emitting text display screen fastened to the back of a theater seat. Open captioning is the most common method of captioning in movie theaters, and unlike television’s closed-captioned text, the open captions are not surrounded by clunky black boxes and are less obtrusive than closed captions.
Since 1990, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires all public accommodations such as movie theaters to provide auxiliary aids and services as requested to provide accessible communications with people who are disabled. But it only encourages the theaters to provide captioned films for audiences with severe hearing disabilities. About 200 movie theaters across the nation regularly show captioned films for patrons with hearing disabilities.
Currently, Missouri has one movie theater that shows open-captioned movies; Northwest Plaza 9 Cine at St. Ann near St. Louis. Tennessee, Missouri’s neighbor state with a similar population, has six theaters regularly showing captioned movies and some other states that have similar populations to Missouri such as Maryland and Arizona have 11 and five such theaters, respectively.
“Most deaf and hard of hearing people never get the opportunity to see first-run Hollywood movies in theaters on the large screen,” said Dr. Roy Miller, director of Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “They would like to enjoy blockbuster movies with their families just like everyone else, but they have to either wait for over a year until these movies come out on captioned home videos or drive to St. Louis to see them at the only theater in Missouri that shows open-captioned films.”
Deaf himself, Miller saw only one captioned film in a theater — “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” — since he came to Missouri in 1999. To see the movie, he had to drive more than four hours for the round-trip to St. Louis. “I doubt that you would go see many films if you had to drive for about five hours to see a movie,” he said.
Kelly Hoskins, director of marketing at Wehrenberg Theaters that owns Northwest Plaza 9 Cine, said the theater has been showing the captioned movies every Monday and Sunday since 2002, including “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” shown in March and “Last Samurai” in April. “Our circuit has always been sensitive to accommodate audiences with disabilities, and we have been closely working with deaf organizations in this area,” she said.
Although there is no hard data about the population of the deaf and hard-of-hearing in Missouri, Miller said, based on national estimate, about 10 percent of the population has some degree of hearing loss ranging from mild loss to profoundly deaf. Using this estimator, he said it suggests that there are about 450,000 Missourians with some degree of hearing loss, including 8,500 estimated in Columbia.
Dennis Bacon of Columbia still remembers how excited he was when he could read and feel the sound of “Mission: Impossible,” the first captioned movie shown in Columbia in 1996. Bacon had not seen many movies since 1977 when he graduated from the Missouri School for the Deaf, at which he could watch captioned movies every month. He used to read actors’ lips whenever he went to a movie, but it was hard to read them whenever the actors were not facing the screen.
“If there were no caption, I would have not understood at all and even puzzled why the hearing people laughed while I didn’t,” Bacon said. “The movie was so awesome and moving because I could understand what was going on and I could laugh at the same time with all people.”
Julie Eaker, a Columbia resident for 38 years who is deaf, was also one of 200 people who gathered to see the movie.
“I finally felt included in the community and was able to enjoy the movie,” Eaker said. Even feeling the sound and vibration in the theater was a wonderful experience, she said. “I was so thrilled because I was not left out at all.”
Since Forum 8 and Hollywood Stadium theaters stopped showing captioned movies due to low attendance, they have been providing assistive listening devices upon patrons’ requests. The devices, however, do not help many deaf patrons like Eaker or even hard of hearing audiences sometimes, as music and sound effects are increasingly taking big parts of films.
In the early 1990s, open-captioned films began to be distributed by Tripod Captioned Films, an outreach program of a deaf-advocate organization called Toward Rehabilitation Involvement by Parents of the Deaf. In 2002, TCF was developed into Insight Cinema, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization dedicated to distribute major Hollywood movies with open captions.
Since then, Insight Cinema has provided more than 300 open-captioned films from 17 major film studios to about 200 movie theaters across the country, including 27 in California, 18 in Texas, five in Arkansas, two in Oklahoma, and one both in Missouri and Kansas.
“It’s supposed to serve a sector of the population that is largely ignored or forgotten,” said Nanci Linke-Ellis, executive director of Insight Cinema, adding that they have come from one location 11 years ago to 206 locations in 2004. The demand for captioned films always outstrips the supply, so the organization could easily add 100 more cities if only they have enough prints to go around, she said.
“The best feedback we receive are from spouses who can go back on dates at the movies and grandparents being able to share a film experience with their grandchildren.”
Meanwhile, many movie theaters argue that showing captioned movies is not as easy as it looks. Hoskins of Wehrenberg Movie Theaters acknowledged it is not easy for the chain to maintain the service for such a small audience, stressing the theater is showing captioned movies and providing a service for the community instead of making a profit.
“If you look at the average film rent situation, it costs us $50 to $1,000 for each showing of movies we play, and we have only about 15 to 20 people for each showing of a captioned movie. You do the math,” Hoskins said, noting that it may not be a surprising result in this small universe of audience, considering that most people go to movies two to four times a month.
Matt Johnson, marketing manager of Goodrich Quality Theaters that owns Forum 8 Theater in Columbia, stressed playing captioned movies only for such a small audience has an extremely low function. “You have to consider the economics. It’s not profitable at all,” he said. “If you live in big cities like Chicago or New York City, there will be lots of theaters you can go and see captioned movies. But I really don’t know about Missouri or Columbia.”