Coda, the Sundance record-setting dramedy from writer/director Sian Heder, is looking to break ground this weekend. The film, about a Child Of Deaf Adults (who also loves to sing, get it?) and her blue-collar fishing family, is getting a theatrical release from Apple and a streaming release on Apple TV+. It’ll stream with full subtitles in more than 36 languages, but the most exciting component is burned into the big screen: Every theatrical screening of Coda will have open captions. That means captions baked into the experience—not optional and without requiring the often frustrating and distracting closed-captioning devices (like the Captiview’s OLED snake or Sony Glass’ Geordi from Star Trek bulk) that movie theaters are required by the ADA to have on hand. It’s an excellent, inclusive move and, after a year of everyone pretty much exclusively watching movies at home, now seems like the right time to normalize more open caption screenings.
It’s not like we haven’t already normalized watching things with subtitles everywhere else. Without them, the whole meme industry mining film and TV for delicious and multipurpose screenshots would collapse. Without them, anime’s subs vs. dubs debate would come to a quick and decisive end. For those growing up getting the majority of their media from streaming services, captions are inherent. Even for hearing viewers watching content in their native tongue, subtitles help with retention (Right, so that guy is invading/plotting/seducing in Game of Thrones), comprehension (How else is anyone supposed to understand the jokes in Wellington Paranormal or Derry Girls?) and flat-out attention.
Let me be clear: I come from a subtitle household. Like Lauren Michele Jackson and many, many other hearing moviegoers and TV bingers, I watch pretty much everything with captions—for a variety of reasons. One, I was raised in a home where we were constantly watching something, so if someone made a particularly good joke at the dinner table, I could often whip my gaze back to The Green Mile or Seinfeld and have my eyes catch what my ears missed. Two, especially when it comes to something like Seinfeld where jokes—especially jokes that might not initially strike a youngin’ like I was on their initial delivery—zip by, it’s handy to get a second appreciative look at the writing. Three, and this is for the nerd in me, it’s great for kids and/or folks learning a language. Context (and spelling!) is emphasized when a caption supplements an actor’s delivery.
So, yes, I’m squarely, selfishly in the camp of wanting captions on everything all the time. And that’s not even touching how normalizing open captions would also help break down the “the one inch tall barrier of subtitles” that Parasite filmmaker Bong Joon-ho noted keeps many Americans from the bounties of international cinema—and American films (Minari, for example) that just happen to not be entirely in English. Open captions help break down the notion of one language being the “default” over another. Increasing accessibility while decreasing stigmatization seems like a good deal and, now that we’ve had a little COVID-mandated distance from the big screen and all the expectations that come along with it, there’s a great opportunity to start shifting the paradigm towards what many are already experiencing at home.
The main counterargument, it seems, is that open captions are distracting for hearing moviegoers. Esther Baruh, the director of government relations for the National Association of Theatre Owners, said “the general moviegoing public really just doesn’t love going to shows that have open captions.” But I have a suspicion that this axiom applies less and less to today’s watchers.
We’ve got unprecedented access to movies and TV from all over the world, from the highest brow Criterion Channel offerings to the silliest sitcoms on Hulu. A subtitled anime film, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train, topped the box office. International films and TV constantly sit in Netflix’s hallowed top ten. Streamers and traditional studios alike market their movies on social media with subtitled GIFs. Subtitles are everywhere for the general moviegoing public—it’s the theaters that are the holdouts. Speaking specifically and anecdotally, Coda’s open captions are great. They’re well-timed, both when they arrive and leave the screen, so they don’t anticipate jokes or distract from a new thought. They’re also light and non-descript without being hard to see. Not overly distracting from the image, especially if your brain has, say, spent a year getting used to the idea.
If everyone from cinephiles gorging themselves on films from France, Korea, Lesotho and Denmark to folks trying to figure out exactly what King Shark is saying as The Suicide Squad hits HBO Max are able to use subtitles without complaint, the case for more open captions seems clear-cut. But when you understand how barren the options are for deaf or hard of hearing moviegoers (hated closed captioning devices, all-too-rare and odd-houred open caption screenings), the case seems imperative. Hawaii is the only state to have passed legislation specifically requiring open caption screenings, though others like Virginia have seen bills and petitions. Coda’s release and the awareness it brings could help change that, encouraging more primetime open captions screenings.
“Oftentimes I think deaf people are left out of the movie-going experience because of devices that don’t work and lack of devices in theaters,” Heder told Reuters. At least one person who’d all but abandoned the theatrical experience came back for Coda. “He was, like, ‘I don’t go to the movies. I can’t wear those glasses. They make me nauseous. Half the time they don’t work so I’ve just stopped going to the theater,’” Heder remembered. “He hadn’t seen a movie in the theater in 10 years and he was very moved and excited.”
Opening up mainstream, big-budget, English-language releases to this community and others (people who don’t speak English as a first language, those learning to read, those with ADHD, those with autism, those with Down syndrome and those who otherwise find captions additive to the moviegoing experience) is a cause movie lovers should find deeply personal—what do people that love movies enjoy more than sharing that affection? As the theatrical experience suffers blow after blow, why not shake things up in a way that welcomes in new audiences? “The one inch tall barrier of subtitles” isn’t just something we can overcome to watch movies from outside our language, but something we can add to make movies more welcoming to everyone. Either way, it’s only an inch.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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