On July 25, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced the impending publication of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) covering closed captioning and audio description requirements for movie theaters.  This NPRM seeks to create a consistent nationwide standard for theaters to exhibit movies that are available with closed captioning and audio description at all showings.  This announcement follows the publication of an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on this subject back in July 2010, on which the DOJ received over a thousand comments from the public on how requirements for movie captions and audio description should be implemented.

Closed captioning and audio description enable individuals with aural and visual disabilities to have access to films during their theatrical releases.  Closed captioning conveys the written text of a film’s dialogue and other sounds, delivered to the patron’s seat and only visible to that patron (as opposed to being displayed on the movie screen).  Audio description is a technology that provides individuals who are blind or have low vision with a spoken narration of key visual elements of a movie, such as action, settings, facial expressions, costumes, and scene changes.

The proposed rule would cover “facilities, other than drive-in theaters, used primarily for the purpose of showing movies to the public for a fee.” Covered theaters would be required to obtain and install equipment to transmit closed captions and audio description, and to have available specified numbers of individual captioning devices (based on the number of seats per theater) that can be used to deliver closed captions to patrons at their seats.  The proposed rule would also require theaters to provide at least one individual audio-description listening device per screen, with each theater having no fewer than two devices total.

  • For digital movie screens, a timeline set      forth under the NPRM would require compliance with the rule within six      months of publication of a final rule.
  • For analog movie screens, the NPRM      contemplated two options:  either a      four year compliance timeline or deferral of the application of the rule      to analog screens until a later time (and seeks comment on which approach      should be adopted).

Whenever a theater presents a film for which captions and audio description are available, the proposed rule would require the theater to exhibit the film with captions and audio description at all scheduled screenings, unless doing so would result in an undue burden or fundamental alteration for the theater.  The rule would also require theaters to provide notice to patrons about the availability of captioned and audio-described films in all ads or listings setting forth movie showings and times.  If a particular film is not produced or distributed with captions or audio description, the proposed rule would still allow theaters to exhibit the movie as-is and would not require theaters to add captions or audio description themselves.  While theaters would be permitted to use open captions (captions displayed on the movie screen itself and visible to all patrons) as a means of meeting the effective communication requirements of the rule, the use of open captions would not be required under any circumstances.

More information on the proposed rule, along with cost projections and other regulatory analysis, can be found on the DOJ’s website – http://www.ada.gov/regs2014/movie_nprm_index.htm.