I just got back from the Austin Film Festival which was fun and educational as always but this year it was also incredibly frustrating. My boyfriend, who is hard of hearing, came with me this time. He needs captions to fully understand and enjoy a film and that’s just not something they do at AFF.
Some backstory – like most people who don’t require accommodations, I never put much thought into the needs and concerns of people who do. And shame on me for that. Seriously, shame on me. Captioning is something I care about now because it matters to someone I love. It shouldn’t take having a personal connection to make me care about an issue. I should have, you know, empathy. The lack of which is at the root of the 2016 election and its hellish aftermath. But anyway – captions. Let’s talk about captions, because that is a place where we can actually make progress.
The FCC requires television programs to be captioned, but not DVDs video games, or internet/streamed content. Netflix voluntarily provides captioning thanks to a lawsuit filed by the National Association of the Deaf. Why it required a lawsuit to get them to do something really easy and inexpensive that would greatly improve the experience of millions of customers is a mystery to me but you do you, Netflix.
Even television shows that are required to be captioned often do a crap job of it. HBO is the worst offender – entire lines of dialogue are missed, or the captions start midway through a sentence or they’ll change location from the top to the bottom of the screen and back. Game of Thrones is complicated enough, people.
Oh and live events? Forget that. The captions are understandably a bit behind, but sometimes they get so far behind that the captioner just skips ahead to catch up, leaving out content. Or the captioner apparently takes a bathroom break and lets a toddler mash the keyboard in his absence.
But at least there are some captions, and usually enough to figure out the context of what’s missing and if you’re watching with your girlfriend, you can pause the show and have her fill in the gaps. Online content? Is usually not captioned at all.
So, look, media makers, caption your shit, okay?
Whether it’s a narrative feature, documentary, short, web series, Youtube video, Instagram story …If you’ve got moving pictures and spoken words, caption that shit. Not subtitles – that’s just transcribing the dialogue. Captions include the dialogue and any relevant sounds – doors creaking, music swelling in the background, ominous footsteps, etc. Do not rely on Youtube’s automatic captions. Have you ever seen those? They’re great for absurdist theater, lousy for accurately conveying content.
Caption your shit. It’s just another digital file. It’s easy enough to do yourself, but if you really don’t want to, it’s cheap to have someone do it for you. Rev.com charges $1 a minute with 24 hour turnaround. There is honestly no excuse for NOT captioning. If you think inclusivity and accessibility are just snowflake PC buzzwords, fine whatever, then do it because captioning opens your work to a potential audience of forty-eight million adults who are deaf or hard of hearing (and that’s just the US). Why would you NOT want forty-eight million people to see your work?
Calling out myself here – I found out that a short film I wrote is on Vimeo and not captioned and I feel like such a hypocrite and/or jerk, and have already reached out to the director to get that fixed.
So, we’re all going to caption our shit, right? Great. Now let’s talk about another problem: captioning devices in theaters.
Captioning devices allow an individual user to view a movie’s caption file. There are a couple of different varieties, but the most common ones are about the size of piece of bread, with a bendy neck and a base that fits into the cup holder. If someone is sitting next to you and using the other cup holder you end up with cold thighs from your drink and it’s not terribly convenient to constantly look down during the movie, but it’s better than nothing.
At least, it’s better than nothing when the devices work. They often don’t. Either something is wrong with the caption file, or the device itself is malfunctioning, or it’s not synced correctly, or its batteries are dead (or die halfway through). It would take – oh – fifteen minutes, I suppose, to test the devices on a regular basis (or at least whenever a new film is released) but apparently theaters find it easier to wait until a patron who needs the device discovers it’s not working after the tickets and popcorn have already been bought.
We’ve learned to call ahead and ask – have you tested the captions on this movie? Do they work? It’s just annoying that we have to every time. Every. Time. Just imagine, every time you want to see a movie, calling around to X number of theaters and going through the rigamarole of finding a real person to talk to, and then explaining to that person what the captioning device is, and how you test it, and then trying to convince them to actually go test it and not just lie and say they did, all because the theater can’t be bothered or trusted to do it voluntarily.
And imagine too, that you are someone who loves movies and wants to see them in the theaters which – hello studios? Isn’t that what you are stress-eating your toenails about? People not going to the movies anymore? Let’s look again at those forty eight million deaf and hard of hearing people in the US. Those forty -eight million people have friends who would be more likely to see a movie if their buddy can enjoy it too.
Oh and we can also revisit the lawsuit theme here, because it took multiple lawsuits in multiple states to get the courts to confirm that yes, captioning devices are a reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act and theaters have to provide them. I guess “and make sure they work” should have been spelled out in the ruling.
I could now launch into a similar tirade about live-performance venues and assisted-listening devices but maybe that should be a rant for another day. I started off talking about the Austin Film Festival, that’s where I’m finishing.
Austin – do better next year. Encourage filmmakers to include a caption file. I’d prefer require, actually, but baby steps. Ask your venues if they have captioning devices. Remind the ones that are full time theaters that, in fact, Federal law requires them to have captioning devices. For your temporary screening venues, add captioning devices to the list of equipment you bring with you. TEST ALL THE DEVICES.
And again – even if you don’t care about inclusivity and accessibility (but I know you do, because it’s Austin) think of the press releases and media attention you could milk with this! You could set the standard for film festivals everywhere. It’s easy to do, and it’s the right thing to do, so do it.
Also – filmmakers – caption your shit!
Note: the use of “shit” is in no way a reflection of the quality of your work, which I’m sure is excellent. Caption it, so I can share it!