The US Federal law titled Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has largely been the driving force behind the inclusion of accessibility features in digital cinema. There has been no shortage of lawsuits with cinema owners over accessibility in the US, largely initiated by Attorney Generals at the State level. The case in Arizona was made by the AG office against both AMC and Harkins. AMC settled out of court. Harkins continued to hold its ground in court.
The general position of the US cinema industry has been that open captions fundamentally alters the nature of the movie. Up until the end of April, there was no definitive legal distinction at the Federal level between open captions and closed captions. This led to contests at the State level whereby several rulings have occurred that differentiate closed captions from open captions, with the result that closed captions can then be enforced in that State. Typically, at the State level, a settlement would comprise the installation of an agreed number of closed caption systems.
But the April 30 decision of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that closed captions do not alter the nature of the movie, distinguishing closed captions from open captions at the Federal level. Effectively, this means that closed captions are now required under ADA law. The Court offered Harkins the option of further recourse under ADA law if it believes that closed captions “would fundamentally alter the nature of its services or constitute an undue burden.” While this can be good news for the closed caption industry, the ruling also opens the door for lawsuits against exhibitors who do not have closed captions.
The challenge to bring closed captions to the cinema industry now has several parts:
- newer, lower cost, closed caption systems must come to market quickly,
- digital cinema servers must quickly become SMPTE DCP compliant, and
- studios must be confident that they can deliver SMPTE DCP without dark screens.
While it is possible to deliver closed captions with the Interop DCP distribution format, not all servers support this. Rather than encourage manufacturers to engage in further development of their Interop implementations, NATO’s position-to-date has been to encourage manufacturers to spend their money on a speedy transition to the SMPTE DCP distribution format. SMPTE DCP encompasses both DCI compliance and accessibility. It’s not clear, though, that the transition will be speedy. If that perception reigns, there could be an about face with a push to enforce closed captions in Interop. Whichever direction the industry chooses to move in, the clock is ticking.