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Audio Description in Movie Theaters


Audio description is finally available for most first-run movies, and more and more movie theaters are being built or renovated with the necessary equipment to offer the description track to patrons.  In fact, the law now requires them to upgrade to include description equipment.  This page will point you to more information about the process, the movies, and the theaters.  Last updated:  February 2018.

'Seeing Movies':  Technology Makes Film Accessible To The Blind

The president of the ACB, Kim Charlson, was interviewed in February 2015 for a segment on Boston's WGBH television, the local PBS outlet.  She emphasized how valuable audio description has been for her in the enjoyment and complete appreciation of movies.  The Department of Justice proposal requiring movie theaters to install description and captioning equipment was addressed, too.  You can view the 4 minute segment below (click it), read the article in print, or click here for an audio version.

Another ACB member, Carl Richardson, also enjoys going to movies that feature audio description.  He was featured in an article in the Boston Globe entitled, Devices give blind filmgoers Oscar-worthy experience.  And an independent New Hampshire theater added accessible films for people with sight or vision impairment, while a Connecticut theater welcomes people with disabilities.

The Switch to Digital

About ten years ago, movie theaters began converting from film projectors to digital, each with a server that processes and distributes the movie data, including audio description tracks.  Each month, more and more movie theaters install one of these systems, making the audio description available to people who need it.  With digital, everything (movie, multiple sound tracks, and captioning) are all delivered in something called the Digital Cinema Package (DCP), which any company can access through common standards, so the competition for equipment is increasing and the cost of installation is decreasing.  One DCP can server multiple screens in a movie house.  While the DCP is currently a physical product (a hard-drive), eventually the data will be delivered to movie theaters via satellite.  

Sony Digital Cinema Overview
Sony Digital Cinema Overview (Photo Copyright Sony)

In movie theaters today, the dominant suppliers for digital equipment are:

A separate Doremi product, CaptiView, is used for closed captioning.  Sony has its own system which uses special glasses and earpieces.  Typically a theater chain uses one system or the other in all of its cities.  Here's what the Sony system (model Sony STW-C140GI, used by Regal and others) looks like.  When glasses are plugged in, it puts the captioning on the glasses; when an earpiece is plugged in, the user hears audio description.

Sony STW-C140GI Receiver top and front
Receiver back Theatre's code to cinemas and settings

Formerly, WGBH Media Access and DTS Access offered a DVS Theatrical Player for description and captioning.  The WGBH system offered closed captioning via a separate system called Rear Window® Captioning (RWC), while the DTS Access system offered open captioning on-screen via a special projector.  These systems are being phased out and replaced by digital products not marketed by either company.  However, WGBH Media Access, as the dominant provider of movie description tracks (over 1200 so far), uses the term MoPix to cover the creation of the tracks, and they are very much in that business.

There are some real "good guys" in the history of making audio description tracks available, for example, AMC and Regal.  Cinemark, the third largest theater chain in the United States, engaged in a process called Structured Negotiations with its blind patrons and the California Council of the Blind in 2012, and now has audio description equipment in every first-run auditorium it operates in the country (press release).  But other companies have often resisted offering description and captioning, even when the equipment was readily available to them (through the conversion to digital).  In part, this resistance is what triggered the Proposed Amendement to ADA Affecting Movie Theater Accessibility in July 2014.  This ended up with the Justice Department signing a "Final Rule" in December 2016 affecting the ADA Title III.  "The Final Rule requires movie theaters [which have digital equipment] to: (1) have and maintain the equipment necessary to provide closed movie captioning and audio description at a movie patron's seat whenever showing a digital movie produced, distributed, or otherwise made available with these features; (2) provide notice to the public about the availability of these features; and (3) ensure that theater staff is available to assist patrons with the equipment before, during, and after the showing of a movie with these features."  However, theaters will have 18 months to comply, and the minimum number of devices required for AD is less than 1 per screen.

Availability of proper equipment and staff training have been a huge issue, and AMC reached a settlement in this regard in the spring of 2017.  In late 2017, the court ruled against Cinemark in a suit brought by a deaf-blind patron who wanted a tactile interpreter.

The Future?

Read this article about Actiview, an up-and-coming technical solution for accessibility in movie theaters.  In October 2017, they released their first described movies in the USA.  Visit the Actiview website and join their email list.  Updated Nov '17

How Many Films Are Described? 

WGBH Media Access tells us that "All major studios now caption and describe all wide released features and nearly all independent studios caption all releases."  Not all of that description makes it to DVD, however; but some studios like Sony, Disney, and Universal have been providing it with almost all of their releases since 2010, followed later by Fox, Lionsgate, and Warner Bros.  It's tough to get the smaller, independent studios to fund description of either movies or DVDs.  Currently a few major studios (and some smaller ones) don't provide DVD description either; for example, Anchor Bay Entertainment / Weinstein Co, Alchemy (formerly Millennium), Miramax FIlms, and Pure Flix.  Write them!

Release to DVD and Blu-ray Disc

So what happens when a described movie ends its run and is released on DVD and Blu-ray discs?  Historically, very few described DVDs were released, but that changed dramatically starting in late 2009.  Read more about this and how to order DVDs on our DVDs page.  You will also find a huge number of described movies on iTunes.

Finding Movies with Audio Description

A good source for finding described videos is CaptionFish.  Just use the filter to select Descriptive Video.  A number of site visitors have also recommended Fandango.  The iOS App works reportedly works well, or you can search the website by location or movie name, and by signing up for a free account, you can save and navigate to your favorite movie theaters.  When you find a specific movie, navigate to the phrase, "Select a movie time to buy tickets."  If you down-arrow at this point, you are hoping to find the phrase, "Accessible devices available."  Clicking that link should produce a pop-up box with either or both "Closed caption" and "DV" (which stands for Descriptive Video).  You, of course, are hoping to find DV listed for the film in question!  As a point of information, after each theater name there is a link labeled Amenities.  If they have audio description headsets, "Accessibility devices available" is supposed to be listed there, but has not proved to be reliable.  If you want to do a search on the page for described movies, you may wish to search for the phrase "accessibility."

More information on Movies With Audio Description


When you pay for your movie ticket, ask for an
AUDIO DESCRIPTION headset; but make sure
it is for audio description, not Assisted Listening
Devices for people who are hearing-impaired!

The following listings pertain primarily to the USA and Canada.

Movies With Description and How to Locate Theatres

Articles About Movie Description Experiences

The Fidelio System from Doremi Labs

Sony Digital Cinema Entertainment Access

Borrowing Described DVDs

Online Described Movies Sources


International Movie and DVD Information

For information on DVDs, see our DVDs page