Regal has long been known by insiders for its engagement of the accessibility community. It’s proactive nature has in part been driven by Randy Smith, Chief Administrative Officer & Counsel for Regal Entertainment Group, whose son is deaf. But Regal’s efforts have not always been viewed as sincere. Over a period of many years, Regal has entered into some form of relationship with nearly every manufacturer that has given thought to producing a closed caption system. While some of these companies put in valiant efforts, it did not lead to the voluminous purchase orders anticipated, with the result that most simply pulled out of the cinema market. This month, taking a significant step forward, Regal broke the mold by issuing a press release announcing its intent to install closed caption systems throughout its circuit in the coming 12-18 months. Randy Smith himself reached out to members of the deaf community to announce the press release, one such email posted on a Yahoo group site for the deaf.
There are several reasons why Regal would choose this time to make a grand announcement. First and foremost is that closed caption technology is now dramatically more affordable than it has ever been. This is a direct result of standardization. SMPTE standards for accessibility in digital cinema ensure uniform, open content for the products of closed caption manufacturers. SMPTE standards also prescribe how server manufacturers can support 3rd party closed caption devices through the use of a standardized, open network protocol. The combination has significantly reduced the barrier to entry for new 3rd party closed caption displays, creating a healthy, competitive environment.
Another reason is that the technology long sought for — closed caption glasses — is now within reach. Over the years, Regal has worked with companies known for their prowess in military displays, such as MicroVision and eMagin, on a glasses-based solution that would place text in front of the viewer’s eyes. Cinema product manufacturer USL followed the footsteps a year ago with prototypes of its own closed caption glasses technology. But for Regal, serendipity struck when a consumer display division of Sony reached out and asked if there was interest in a glasses-based closed caption display. Only later did Sony’s glasses division connect with its cinema division. Sony went to work with USL to develop a prototype that could be driven by USL infrared panels. The prototypes were demonstrated privately, but only for the first time publicly at the CinemaCon accessibility demo end of March.
While Sony’s glasses have proven to be popular with exhibitors, Sony now finds itself in a position familiar to its predecessors: it’s waiting for a purchase order. Cost being everything, it remains to be seen if Sony’s glasses can be priced to induce a large volume of orders. Even with a sizable order from the cinema industry, it’s unlikely that Sony’s sophisticated technology will produce the needed ROI that will keep it in production. Without other uses for its technology, it’s unlikely that Sony can achieve a price point that would produce a high volume of orders from cinema owners. Whatever Sony’s ability to hit a sweet spot may be, it appears that Regal is feeling optimistic that worthy solutions are out there.
There may be those who think Regal’s announcement is timed to coincide with an anticipated ruling by the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Such ruling is expected to force US cinemas to install closed caption technology in a certain percentage of screens over a number of years. But if this was so, Regal would simply have waited for the ruling, possibly several years away, to learn what its minimum coverage and timeframe should be. Instead, Regal took an aggressive, proactive approach, and it should be commended for doing so. It will lead its peers in the US cinema industry to follow suit, and hopefully produce the voluminous purchase orders that several companies are in line to receive.