AG Lynch Signs Rule Requiring Most Movie Theaters to Provide Closed Captioning, Audio Descriptions

By Susan Jones | November 22, 2016 | 12:31pm EST
The Obama administration has issued a final rule requiring most of the nation's movie theaters to provide visual and audio assistance for patrons who request it. (AP File Photo)

( - Six years after requiring hotel and other public swimming pools to install special lifts for disabled patrons, President Obama's Justice Department this week issued a final rule requiring movie theaters to provide closed movie captioning and audio descriptions at a movie-goer's seat.

The closed-captioning and audio requirements apply only to theaters with digital projection systems; analog and drive-in theaters are exempt.

The final rule signed Monday by Attorney General Loretta Lynch also says theaters must let the public know about the availability of visual and audio aids; and theater staff must be available to assist patrons with the equipment before, during, and after the showing of a movie.

The new regulation falls under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires public accommodations, including movie theaters, to provide effective communication through the use of auxiliary aids and services.  

The Justice Department estimates that there are about 39,994 movie theater auditoriums or screens operating in the United States, and an estimated 38,688 have converted to digital projection systems. The rest are analog or drive-in.

For theaters with digital projection systems, the rule goes into effect 45 days after publication in the Federal Register. (Movie theaters converting their auditoriums from analog to digital projection systems have a longer timeframe for compliance.)

The regulation includes cost estimates for different theaters venues, as follows:

-- The average upfront costs to a Megaplex movie theater (16+ auditoriums) that is not already equipped to provide closed movie captioning or audio description are approximately $27,358. (The largest expense for a Megaplex movie theater is purchasing the captioning hardware for each auditorium.)

-- The upfront costs for the average single-auditorium movie theater are $3,562, with the largest expense being the acquisition of captioning devices.  

 --The upfront costs for the average Multiplex (8–15 auditoriums) and Miniplex (2–7 auditoriums) movie theaters are $18,309 and $9,834, respectively.

And what happens if a movie theater cannot afford to comply with the requirements of the rule?

The Justice Department said movie theaters are not obligated to comply with the rule's specific requirements "where compliance would result in an undue burden."

But even if compliance results in an undue burden, "the movie theater still has an obligation to provide an alternative aid or service that provides effective communication if one is available."

The cost estimates include the expense of aquiring the hardware as well as the actual devices for closed captioning and audio; installation costs; replacement costs; training costs; and maintenance and administrative costs.

The rule requires theaters with one auditorium to have a minimum of four fully functioning closed-caption devices available for the hearing-impaired at individual theater seats. Theaters with 2 to 7 auditoriums must have at least six closed-caption devices available.

For the visually impaired, theaters with one auditorium must have one audio description device available. Theaters with 2 to 7 auditoriums must have at least one to four audio devices available to describe the digital movie to a theater patron.

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