A comment by Davor on another question mentioned that overlaying subtitles on the picture was a necessity for TV which had limited screen real-estate but that it would be trivial to project subtitles below the screen. So now my question is: why don't they?

This article by Jan Ivarsson makes a brief mention of a separate (sub)title projection machine that could presumably project text below the screen. The only real mention I've found on the web is of a technology/campaign to provide optional subtitles for the hard-of-hearing via special glasses. These subtitles would be displayed below the screen.

Is there simply no demand for this? Have there been studies showing the pros and cons?

Note: while I mention a project for subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, I'm not specifically talking about closed captioning. While movie-goers from English-speaking countries generally aren't used to subtitles, they are standard in dozens of other countries.

  • Not sure about the tags for this so please retag as appropriate.
    – user15995
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 17:13
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    I'd imagine the answer is at least partially related to [screen size + distance from screen] in a theater making it such that you would have to move your eyes more than you would with the subtitles onscreen, but I don't have any research or even math to back this up. Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 17:15
  • I've created two tags... but I don't know what people think of them... Regardless, this isn't about cinematography, so this is better than that.
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 17:36
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    I don't have data, but I have a hunch question_asker is on the right track...the main reason is likely that a user wants to continue watching the screen...not have to take their eyes off of it to focus on text, then back to the screen to refocus on the image. It's hard enough when captions are part of the frame as it is.
    – DA.
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 17:41

1 Answer 1


I'll get to a nifty solution that meets one of your examples a bit better towards the end, but in the meantime....

There are likely several reasons (this hasn't been done very well until recently):

  1. They would still require separate hardware to be projected on a separate screen bellow the main screen. While it may not be as big a deal now that we've gone all digital, in the days of 35mm the frame size was pretty much set, as was the hardware. For hearing impaired showings we had the ability to run a special DVD through a separate, standard office projector that would place the subtitles and "context sounds" on the screen for people hard of hearing, but we still had to set it up, angle it just right (not all theater screens are the same size/pitch/width), and then they had to be started at a specific time to be in-sync with the film, though some had hardware to help with that as well.

    Further, placing them on a special screen has another downfall: tall patrons sitting in front of you. Not all theaters feature full stadium seating, especially for the first 7 to 10 rows in some larger screen theaters. Should you be unlucky and have to sit in one of those seats with a tall patron in front of you and you need the separate "subtitle screen", you're gonna have a bad time. The screen is optimally placed to try and reduce these problems as much as possible, but having one even lower would negate those efforts.

  2. Special hardware like what you're talking about, glasses or stands that let people view the subtitles from just their seat while everyone else simply doesn't see them, still requires additional hardware. It's handy for the few hard of hearing/deaf individuals who come to the movies, but if equipment had to be supplied and stored to cover anyone and everyone who might want them, the cost would be insane. Which leads us to...

  3. Cost. I remember when 3D first came to the theater I used to work for and relied on "shutter lens" glasses. They had to be cleaned and sanitized between showings, kids would drop and break them (we never charged for this unless it was clearly deliberate), and they cost something like $50 a pair. When it became possible to simply use cheap polarized glasses that the studios just sent in droves, we switched as soon as we could, even paying to have those screens updated to "shinier" ones to reflect light better and make the picture look less dim through them. Not everyone needs the film subtitled, so simply having special hardware for the few individuals who do is more cost effective and less prone to having some jerk who doesn't really need it breaking it.

  4. A separate screen makes me have to completely take my eyes off the main screen just to read the text. Sit back far enough and some subtitles can be read peripherally. Placing them on a separate screen makes that even harder.

Basically, it used to be that we would have special screenings listed for hearing impaired patrons to come and see movies using our special projector. We also had special headphones we could link to each projector to provide hard of hearing patrons with louder, more focused sound. Now some theaters have special devices that can be placed in the cupholder of their seat, called CaptiView, so that only they can see the subtitles during any showing, making it more convenient for deaf patrons to see movies on their schedule.

Here's AMC's site on assistive devices for people with various auditory disabilities.

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    #4. Subtitles can be a huge distraction if what's going on on-screen isn't at least in your peripheral vision. I want to know what they're saying, but not to the point that I miss what they're doing/their body language/ancillary visuals are missed. Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 19:14
  • You make some very good points, thanks for the explanation. I do want to point out that I wasn't referring to closed captions for the hearing impaired exclusively. As @JohnnyBones points out, subtitles can be distracting for the "untrained", but moviegoers from non-English speaking countries are very much used to them and the issues with making subtitles optional are usually not a factor there.
    – user15995
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 22:12
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    I feel as though the only way you can be "untrained" for subtitles is if you don't read very well.
    – MattD
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 22:13
  • That Capt I View looks interesting.
    – cde
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 22:28

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