Alexandra McKenzie loves watching movies, but a trip to the cinema is usually a frustrating and disappointing experience.

Key points:

  • Deaf community leaders want cinemas to run more sessions with subtitles on screen
  • Major cinemas largely use caption devices that can be placed in a seat’s cupholder
  • More than 3 million Australians live with hearing loss

As others stock up on popcorn and drinks, Ms McKenzie collects a closed-caption device called CaptiView, which she places in the cupholder next to her seat.

She then spends the entire film glancing at the screen and down to the CaptiView to read the captions, two lines at a time.

At best, it’s an unfulfilling experience; at worst, it’s a waste of time. So unpopular are the CaptiViews, that many in the deaf community refer to it as “CraptiView”.

n April, Ms McKenzie was in a group of 40 people who walked out of Avengers: Endgame when captions did not appear, despite Village Cinemas in Sunshine listing the session as an open-caption screening.

Village apologised, met with Ms McKenzie and disability advocates and pledged to do more to support the deaf community.

“Ultimately, the response was really positive, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they keep going in the next few months,” Ms McKenzie said.

Village’s stance appears to be the exception in the industry.

One of its larger rivals, Hoyts, has no plans to introduce open captions at its 50 cinemas nationwide.

In an email to a deaf advocacy group, seen by the ABC, the company said it was pushing ahead with plans to increase closed captioning in cinemas.

“Our position remains that we worked consultatively with government, industry and representative organisations in good faith,” the email said.

No evidence captions turn off viewers’

About 3.6 million Australians were affected by hearing loss in 2017, and that number was projected to reach 7.8 million by 2060, according to the Health Care Industry Association.

Deaf Australia and other lobby groups have been trying for decades to increase the uptake for open-caption screenings, with little success.

“The ongoing view from the industry is that, ‘patrons will be turned off by seeing captions’, and, ‘patrons will cease attending movies if OC is required’,” Deaf Australia chief executive Kyle Miers said.

“I have always challenged them to prove these statements, but they have not provided any evidence whatsoever.”

In 2009, Australia’s big four cinemas — Village, Hoyts, Reading and Event — agreed to roll out the CaptiView system with the backing of Commonwealth funding.

The audio description feature of the devices was hailed as a game-changer for blind audience members, but Mr Miers said he believed the deaf were short-changed.

Others, like disability sector advocate Gary Kerridge, went further, labelling CaptiView a “dud” and declaring that the government program had “failed the deaf”.

Modern trends increase support for captions

Dr Naja Later, a deaf pop culture expert from Swinburne University, said she believed audiences worldwide were becoming more receptive to open captions.

“Many patrons from non-English-speaking countries are strong supporters because they watch OC movies with translations on screen and don’t find them disruptive,” she said.

“I think the popularisation of gifs as a means of expression online, the etiquette of muting phones when watching videos in public, and the ease of turning on closed captions on streaming services has made hearing people more welcoming of captions.”

Dr Later said she only saw her first open-captioned film last week and felt “incredible relief” by just looking at the screen.

“It made the film much more immersive and took away a lot of the anxiety and distraction I usually experience at the cinema.”  For Ms McKenzie, a bad experience at the movies paled in comparison to other daily challenges she faced.

But the discussion has been a starting point, and she hoped it could start a broader conversation about accessibility in the community.