AMC Entertainment, the largest movie theater chain in the world, will offer open captioning at 240 locations in the United States, a move that the company’s chief executive described as “a real advance for those with hearing difficulties or where English is a second language.”
Movie theaters provide closed captioning through devices that some customers describe as inconvenient and prone to malfunctioning. Open captions, however, are displayed on the screen in a way similar to subtitles; everyone in the theater sees the same captions, on the same screen.
Advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing have long sought more and higher-quality captioning, but theater owners worry that people who aren’t deaf simply don’t like seeing captions at the movies.
“In some cases, putting open captions on the screen diminishes ticket sales for the movie,” said John Fithian, the president and chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners, although he noted that the evidence was mostly anecdotal. He said the industry, whose business has been battered by the pandemic, was studying the relationship between open captions and ticket sales.
Christian Vogler, a professor at Gallaudet University, a school in Washington that serves the deaf, said in an email, “Detractors of open captions often have argued that the wider hearing audience would revolt over them, or that these would be a losing business proposition for theaters.” He praised AMC’s move, which was announced last week, saying, “The fact that a large national chain has had a change of heart is significant, and may even open the floodgates for others to follow suit.”
Other major theater chains, including Regal Cinemas and Cinemark, did not respond to messages seeking comment, and AMC did not say what precipitated the company’s decision.
But Mr. Fithian, whose group represents large chains and small theater owners alike, said the industry had been paying more attention to open captioning recently as advocates for the deaf and hard of hearing have voiced concerns about closed-captioning devices.
“AMC’s the first to go public with what they’re rolling out,” he said. “But this is all part of an industrywide effort to improve access by both making sure our closed-captioning systems are working, but also by expanding the number of voluntary open-caption shows across the country.”
The announcement brought some measure of hope to the deaf and the hard of hearing.
Megan Albertz, of South Florida, was at a brewery on Saturday where a captioned version of the 1995 Robin Williams movie “Jumanji” was playing in the background.
Ms. Albertz, 29, was born with profound hearing loss and realized, having previously seen “Jumanji” without captions, that she had originally misunderstood scenes or characters’ dialogue.
“Over the years, I’ve rewatched movies I had seen in theaters on various streaming platforms with captions, and I am continuously blown away with how much language or lines I missed,” she said in an email.
She called AMC’s decision a step toward “accessibility for all” but wanted the company and the industry to continue expanding open-caption options.
In recent years, because of litigation, legislation and pressure from disability-rights advocates, the theater industry has made closed-captioning equipment more widely available. That equipment includes the Sony glasses used by Regal Cinemas and the Captiview device, which attaches to a theater seat’s cupholder and displays captions.
“These devices have their fans,” Dr. Vogler, of Gallaudet University, said, “but are also widely despised, due to both their propensity to cut out, get misconfigured, run out of battery, and their inferior usability and ergonomics compared to” open captioning.
AMC said that only select, clearly designated showtimes would feature open captioning and that the “vast majority” of its showtimes would still be offered with closed captioning.
The company’s chief executive, Adam Aron, noted that the expansion was in time for Marvel’s “Eternals,” which is set to open on Nov. 5 and features Lauren Ridloff, an actress who has been deaf since birth and who plays the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In an interview with The New York Times in August, Ms. Ridloff said most movie theaters were not accessible to the deaf, who are often viewed as an “afterthought.”
“You have to use a special closed-captioning device to watch subtitling in a theater, and it’s a headache, because most of the time the devices don’t work,” she said. “Then you have to go back to the front desk and find somebody to help, and by the time they figure it out that it’s not working — that it’s not going to be subtitled at all — the movie’s halfway done.”