The DCP is designed to carry closed caption text. Every digital cinema media block knows what to do with it. The technology that connects the closed caption text with third-party closed caption displays is open and ready to use in digital cinema media blocks. It’s this high degree of availability and interoperability that enabled the development of competitive third-party closed caption display systems that simply plug-in and work. So I am somewhat annoyed when receiving emails describing proprietary apps for smart phones and tablets that bypass the DCP. These systems utilize proprietary closed caption text that may never have been seen by the director or by the studio. In spite of the ability of the DCP to carry closed captions, such devices find their way into the market because they fill a need. Not every distributor is willing to ship closed captions in the DCP. It’s a short-sighted position.
For about a year, I’ve been in contact with someone in a Western European country who has been diligently working to bring closed captions to cinema audiences in her country. English is not her country’s first language, but it is widely spoken, and closed captions in English would be better than none. But even though DCP-based English closed captions are in the UK, she was unable to convince distributors to include it in their DCPs. Recently, I received an email that she solved the problem with an app for personal devices. The good news is that a viable closed caption solution is now available in her country. The shame is that reliance on personal devices in the cinema was her only option.
The idea of using personal devices for the display of closed captions is not new. Even I once tried to socialize such technology with my studio colleagues. But the concerns I expected to hear were reinforced, and they are concerns that deserve attention. First, personal devices in cinemas are not popular with audiences. The glow of the screens is disruptive. When text appears on a black background, the background is never really black. Black levels on a phone display are quite high, appearing as a glowing gray. Second, personal devices can be noisy and disruptive. Cinemas in my area show public service announcements that ask the audience to silence their phones. Last, there’s the piracy issue. Personal devices have cameras that get better every year. It would be ridiculous to suggest that every person in a cinema with a mobile phone seeks to pirate movies. But why make it easy for the bad guy to hide behind people who need access to closed captions?
An objection heard to DCP-based closed captions is the cost of the closed caption display. It’s the problem of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. I look at closed caption systems as a relative cost, which is on the order of a few percent of the cost of the total projection and sound system per auditorium. I agree that’s a few percent more than nothing, but if that’s the level of cost that one needs to worry about, then what happens when the projector lamp needs replacement?
I am stumped to find a rationale for not supporting closed captions in the DCP. The benefits to the audience, and the mitigation of piracy, would seem to be a no-brainer. Cost should not be an issue. Perhaps one day I’ll see the light…and hopefully it won’t be a glowing screen on a nearby phone in a cinema.