Final Rule: Title III of the ADA Requiring Movie Theaters to Provide Closed Captioning, Audio Description

Amidst the growing number of accessibility discrimination lawsuits being filed against US movie theater chains, the Department of Justice announced yesterday that a Final Rule of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title III will soon be published to enforce a nationally consistent standard. This rulemaking will provide specific requirements that cinemas must now meet to satisfy their equal access obligations to patrons with hearing and vision disabilities.

For screenings of features produced with closed captioning, movie theaters will now be required to provide caption display devices, such as Sony’s Access Glasses or Dolby’s CaptiView, to patrons who request them. The law will also require these theaters to provide assistive listening devices for any film produced with an audio description track, which contains a personal narration throughout the film.

Specifically, the rule requires movie theaters 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.
  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.

Theater Responsibilities

The rule defines a movie theater as a “facility, other than a drive-in theater, that is owned, leased by, leased to, or operated by a public accommodation and that contains one or more auditoriums that are used primarily for the purpose of showing movies to the public for a fee.” This rule will not apply to cinemas that only screen analog movies (film prints) in all of their auditoriums. Drive-in theaters are also excluded from the definition of a movie theater because the technology to provide closed captioning and audio description in such venues does not yet exist.

Movie theaters must obtain and install the necessary equipment that enables movie patrons to view the closed captions and hear the audio description in their individual seats. The necessary equipment consists of the following two components:

  1. The hardware equipment that transmits the closed movie captions or the audio description to movie patrons at their individual seats.
  2. The individual devices that receive the closed movie captions or the audio description. The closed movie captioning and audio description devices must be made available to people with hearing and vision disabilities so that these individuals may view the closed movie captions or hear the audio description at their individual seats.

The number of captioning devices required at a movie theater is based on the number of auditoriums that show digital movies.  The minimum number of fully operational captioning devices should be in accordance with the following table:

Number of Movie Theater Auditoriums Showing Digital Movies Minimum Required Number of Captioning Devices
1 4
2–7 6
8–15 8
16 + 12

Not all films are produced with closed captions and/or audio description tracks. In that instance, a theater will not be prohibited from showing a digital movie that was distributed without these accessibility features. The theaters will also not be required to add captioning or audio description to these films nor will it pressure those precious cinephile sanctuaries to convert their analog theaters to digital.


Attorney General Loretta Lynch signed the Final rule yesterday, November 21, 2016, with the final publication due to be posted on the Federal Register’s website. The rule goes into effect 45 days after publication and any movie theater that provides closed captioning and audio description on or after this date must notify the public about the availability of these features and have staff available to assist movie patrons with the equipment.

For theaters not already equipped with the accessibility devices, 18 months after publication they must have available and maintain the equipment necessary to provide closed movie captioning and audio description at a movie patron’s seat.

Since cost estimates show expenses up to $27,000 for a 16+ theater multiplex, certain theaters will not be obligated to complete the requirements “where compliance would result in an undue burden.”

The above only applies to closed captioning. Laws have not been expanded to include open captions; except in Hawaii.

Now that these rules will be clearly defined and assigned, theaters across the US will be a surefire risk of a lawsuit if they are not in compliance.