All CODA screenings have open captioning
Every showing of CODA, the Oscar winner for Best Picture, has been open captioned Credit:

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

No one sees a Marvel movie for the dialogue, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an important part of the viewing experience. For longtime movie fan and founder of DC Deaf Moviegoers & Allies Erik Nordlof, who is Deaf, the failure of not one but two closed captioning devices ruined his experience seeing Captain Marvel in a theater.

One device kept dropping lines—Nordlof says signal failure is a constant problem. The battery in the second died before the movie ended. The movie buff ended up at this particular screening of Captain Marvel because he missed the open captain screening, but still wanted to see the blockbuster. “Combining them, I think I got most of the movie, but I shouldn’t have to get two devices,” he tells City Paper. “I know to do that because of negative experiences [I’ve had] in the past.” 

For Nordlof, this was one of many experiences that made him a proponent of open captioning. Unlike closed captioning devices, which either display text on a Blackberry-like device (and requires users to constantly look between the big screen and the little one in their cupholder) or glasses that project captions onto the lens, open captioning is similar to subtitles that appear directly on the screen—everyone can see them. Unfortunately, open captioning is harder to find. Nordlof is one of many local film fans working to change that.

On March 14, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen reintroduced legislation that would require D.C. theaters to provide more open caption showings at popular times. With six additional co-introducers—Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4), Christina Henderson (at-large), Elissa Silverman (at-large), and Robert White (at-large)—the Open Movie Captioning Requirement Act of 2022 would require theaters within city limits that have more than one screen to provide open captioning for at least 12 percent of the weekly screenings for each film playing. At least half of the open captioned showings would need to be scheduled during “peak movie attendance hours,” defined in the bill as after 6 p.m. on Fridays, and weekends from noon to 11 p.m. Other acceptable times are weekday evenings.  

The New York City Council passed a similar law last year. Hawaii has had an open captioning law on the books since 2015. And in February, Maryland lawmakers filed House Bill 1238, which would require all “motion picture houses” to offer closed caption options at every screening and certain ones to provide at least two open caption screenings weekly.

According to Nordlof, it’s typical for local theaters to offer open caption screenings during a movie’s opening weekend, but not by the second. Nordlof used showings of The Batman at Alamo Drafthouse, the city’s newest theater, as an example. The Robert Pattinson flick opened March 4; despite showing the film in two or three auditoriums, none of the second weekend screenings were open captioned, he recalls. When asked to confirm this account, Alamo’s regional programming manager Kajun Waybright told City Paper via email: “We’re committed to Open Caption Programming at Alamo DC, and over the week of March 11th, we ran OC screenings of The Batman at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 13, and at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15.”

Theaters often program open caption screenings for odd hours, such as weekday afternoons, which are inconvenient for people who work 9 to 5. “Theaters felt like they would get more business in that time slot, but we’re not going to be likely to go to them either,” says Nordlof. “We don’t want to be used to pocket a few dollars, we want to just go at the same time as hearing people.” 

Erik Nordlof, provided by Erik Nordlof

Allen filed a similar bill in 2018 with the support of several other councilmembers, including some who are no longer in office. But after a somewhat heated hearing—members of the National Association of Theatre Owners argued then (and still) that “the general moviegoing public really just doesn’t love going to shows that have open captions”—the bill died at the year’s end. (NATO also expressed concerns that offering more open caption screenings would hurt ticket sales.)

In 2019, City Paper reported that the bill was filed too late in the legislative session to be passed before the new year. In the summer of 2019, NATO asked to try out a pilot program with area theaters, setting up an open caption schedule similar to what the bill called for to “assess whether the market can sustain a higher number of open-captioned screenings,” according to the Washington Post. According to Nordlof, that program was halted when COVID-19 caused movie houses worldwide to shut down. 

Now, as theaters have reopened over the last year, many have continued offering open captions. According to Alamo Drafthouse’s website, their D.C. and Northern Virginia locations offer “a rotating selection of open-captioned screenings … A new release will play with dialogue and audio description subtitles on screen, and tickets will go on sale by the close of business the Tuesday prior.” It’s a good sign, but Nordlof wants to make sure it becomes a permanent fixture of accessibility in the city known for its expansive Deaf community (Nordlof’s DC Deaf Moviegoers & Allies Facebook group has 2,600 members). “My experience with [organizing] before is that a good thing will not last forever,” he says. 

Additionally, time remains an issue. At the local Alamo, for the week of April 8 through 14, six movies were available for multiple open caption screenings: CODA, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Morbius, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Ambulance, and The Lost City. But only CODA—the 2022 Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, which required all showings to have open captions and tells the story of a child of deaf adults—has any screenings scheduled later than 3:15 p.m. On weekdays, every other open caption showing starts before 1 p.m. At AMC Georgetown, which is no longer showing CODA, seven movies were available with open captions for the week of April 14 through 20. Though none were available for Monday, and Thursday and Sunday only offered one showing per day at 4 p.m., the other four days offered at least two open caption screenings per day, five of which were scheduled for after 6 p.m. Regal Cinemas at Gallery Place had a schedule similar to AMC’s, and Landmark E Street Cinema offered at least one late afternoon or evening showing five out of the seven days City Paper looked at. Despite only playing three movies for the week of April 14 to 20, the intimate, three-screen Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market provides one open caption screening four nights out of the week, all starting between 4:40 and 7:15 p.m. 

At the time of publication, NATO had not returned City Paper’s request for comment but as of March 28, the organization told the Wall Street Journal that “closed captioning ensures every screening is accessible to Deaf people, and theater owners have reported a decrease in ticket sales for most open-captioned shows compared with noncaptioned shows.”

Nordlof argues closed captioning is a way to “give Deaf people access without letting hearing people know of anything that’s going on … and it helped hide a problem.” Technology, he says, is unreliable. With films like CODA and 2021’s Eternals, which starred Lauren Ridloff—the Marvel movies’ first Deaf superhero—Deaf culture is slowly moving a bit more into pop culture’s spotlight. “Now we need more Deaf inclusion at the movie theaters themselves,” Nordlof says.