Legal Eagle: Regal’s Randy Smith lays down the law to help cinemas meet customer needs

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Cinemas Features

“I was obviously truly honored and somewhat humbled,” admits Randy Smith, senior VP, chief administrative officer and counsel for Regal Entertainment Group. “I saw some of those names on that list and frankly I am not certain that I can hold an umbrella for them.” Indeed, the 2017 recipient of the Al Shapiro Distinguished Service Award is following in the footsteps of many greats “who have provided that much support to our industry,” he acknowledges. “It is certainly an honor.”

But Randy Smith has done his fair share in making a difference too, particularly in the areas of movie theatre safety and accessibility. “As an attorney,” he notes, “I oversee and facilitate many, mostly negative things, such as litigation and complaints. So when I had the opportunity to assist NATO and its members including Regal in meeting these challenges, it was almost a perk for me. It allows me to do something positive for other individuals in our industry.”

By creating Regal Entertainment University, a first-class training program to ensure the safety of staff and guests, Smith helped reduce in-theatre slip-and-falls, for instance. Smith also directed the rollout of the Sony Entertainment Access System for visually and hearing-impaired patrons. At the same time, he assisted with negotiating the joint accord between the major deaf advocacy groups and NATO to establish meaningful access regulations with the Department of Justice.

Looking back on an esteemed career in law, including close to a decade in private practice when he “represented probably 60 or 70 different employers…in different industries,” Smith gives credit to the executive and management teams at Regal Entertainment Group. “Very shortly after coming in-house, they asked me to get involved with some of the issues within our industry that NATO was working on. And, I am going to tell you, the first time I went to a NATO board meeting, I was somewhat surprised.”

As for the reason, Smith qualifies that being “a bit cynical” comes with the territory of being an attorney. However, “seeing how our company and other companies would set aside their competitive differences and work together for a common goal was not overwhelmingly shocking to me, but…a little surprising nonetheless.”

“[Whenever] issues rose over the years, here at Regal it did not matter whether you were a competitor or not,” Smith says, and that attitude continues today. “I was invited to help any member of our industry that needed help. Whether it was with piracy issues, ratings or security, disability issues. I just find so unique that most members of this industry, regardless of who you are, are all willing to help each other out.”

In our business, and for Smith personally, “what inspires me is our ability to help people.” Honoring his mother for always helping others, “what inspires me is my family, my wife Patty and sons Ryan and Matthew,” he adds. “They are the people who have sacrificed more than anyone else. I tend to be a little bit of a workaholic and they have always been there for me and always been supportive of what I try to do.”

The same holds true for Regal. Working as outside counsel, “traveling around the country for them,” Smith became “very close” with Greg Dunn, now president and chief operating officer of Regal Entertainment Group. “I shared with Greg some of my personal challenges” at the time. In a testament to the company’s willingness to help—in addition to Greg Dunn, Smith offers special thanks to Amy Miles, chief executive officer, and company founder Mike Campbell—Regal responded, well, regally. With their son Ryan, who was born deaf, entering first grade in a public school, for Randy and his wife to be “observing how isolated he was…was too much for us to bear,” he recalls. Evaluating options to send Ryan to a specialized school instead of keeping his education “mainstream” with help from an interpreter, they realized how options in Louisville, Kentucky, were limited at best. “One day, out of the blue, we get this package without a return address and containing information about several deaf school options here in Knoxville.” Having spoken to Greg Dunn about these challenges before, receiving that letter “was probably when I decided to walk away from my private practice and to relocate to Knoxville so that our child would have a better experience growing up.”

Smith recalls another defining experience on the path to making movies more accessible to everyone. “Regal Cinemas was participating by cycling Tripod Captioned Films prints around and, still, showings were so infrequent. Ryan loved movies, even though he couldn’t understand them because hardly any films had captions back then. He loved movies and watched them all the time. So, after arriving at Regal, I talked to Mike Campbell and we decided to start showing kids’ movies for free. We would invite the Tennessee School for the Deaf here in Knoxville to bring all their students over.” Smith recalls the first free screening, when “they were loading up three buses with children from kindergarten to high school” and he talked to one of the counselors. “She told me that the overwhelming majority of those children…had never been to a movie before. That was shocking to me. I had just never considered this or thought about it. When I turned around…arms and hands were reaching out of every window on the bus signing ‘I love you’ to me. Because we had shown them a movie.”

Not surprisingly, Smith calls this encounter “the turning point where I felt this is more than just a movie. Going to the movies is also a part of life in America. Yes, certainly my child’s interest had an impact, but I think if there was one defining moment, that was it.”

Amidst all the discussion of the advantages of digital cinema—quality of presentation, event cinema, cost efficiencies—the positive impact on accessibility does not get enough recognition. “You hit the nail on the head,” Smith concurs. “Digital did not just open up access for the deaf, but with descriptive audio we can improve on the experience for the blind and visually impaired as well.” The reality during the early 2000s, and before, was “that there was not a simple solution when it came to captioned films. The Tripod approach was very expensive and you had to burn the captions into the print. Although the studios would donate a few prints, to cover the entire United States was almost impossible.”

“Being familiar with the community,” he continues, “represented an opportunity where I would engage with advocates in the deaf community to get some feedback as to what ultimately needed to be accomplished. Because of my legal background and my affiliation with NATO, we could then begin coordinating efforts with the studios and the technology companies. It was a very difficult process. Getting everybody into the same room to have a discussion of merit took years and years.”

It was never a question whether captions and descriptive audio would be made available, he assures, but one of technological development. “With film-based projection systems, all of us were limited in our options. No disrespect to the developers of rear-window captioning devices, but the deaf community and some of the advocacy groups did not like it. The system was difficult to use and caused a glare on their glasses. If you ever used it, you would understand what it was like.”

With no other options at the time, “we started looking for companies to help,” Smith recalls about the nationwide effort to find solutions. “One of the manufacturers I met with, for example, developed headsets for tank drivers and pilots that included display systems. I asked them to try and come up with some type of personal captioning system. We did this for years until we finally had a group of four or five companies that we could incentivize to develop some technologies.”

All that happened in the anticipation that digital was coming. “Even though, as we all know, that was taking forever.” He does, in fact, remember 1994 as “the first time I argued in court that digital technology was coming… Irrespective of that, in 2007 we had several companies engaged to develop prototypes that Regal and NATO presented at a symposium at our location in Washington, DC.” Inviting advocacy groups to view these technologies provided “invaluable feedback about their preferences, what they liked and what they did not.” Still, to this day, “there is a lot of debate, with people saying open captions are preferable to personal captioning.”

Rolling out the DTS captioning system around 2005, which required a separate projector superimposing the captions, had failed at the same time as it provided additional insight. “What we learned was, unfortunately, most individuals who did not need captions were not big fans of them. Attendance at those dedicated shows was about 50 percent of the other showtimes. We subsequently asked members of the deaf groups whether they would prefer the opportunity to go to any movie any time, rather than having firmly scheduled open-caption shows. Almost overwhelmingly, they wanted to be able to come to any movie, any day, at any showtime.”

“But we made a commitment,” he assures, “that with digital cinema, we were going to work towards this goal of common access. The NATO team, Regal and some other companies sat down and the studios came onboard with the technology companies to develop industry-wide standards.” While this was a lengthy process, Smith points out it was also “an extremely collaborative process between all parties involved, until we finally got to the point, around 2010, when the snowball had become an avalanche. We were well on our way so that within two years several technologies became available and the standards were established for them to be operable with every projection system out there.”

During that the same time in early 2012, Regal Entertainment Group committed to a nationwide rollout with Sony’s Entertainment Access System. The effort was worth it, not just at Regal Cinemas but across the industry. “Utilization of this technology is easily twice as much as what we anticipated during the initial rollout. We were very pleasantly surprised. To this day we have an extensive amount of utilization, but we also still provide open-caption shows for groups. Then we have certain theatres in markets that have such a large deaf community…where we routinely schedule open-caption shows.” Smith wants to provide as many options and opportunities as possible.

“The world we live in is tough enough,” Randy Smith reflects on the opportunity to make a difference. “Sometimes people get so absorbed in their own lives that maybe they miss out on a chance to improve the lives of others. When I think back to those deaf students on the bus leaving after the movie…to simply say going to the movies is recreation I think is an understatement. If we take the time to appreciate what movies mean to people, we’d be surprised how we can impact our society in a positive way. And how we certainly can improve the lives of those in a different situation, physically or financially, from the ones we find ourselves in. I would just advise everybody to pay attention to the world around you. If you see an opportunity to help, please do it.”