Watching Over the City of Dreams
Theme parks and movies and politics, oh my
Published in 2005 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 26, 2005
Updated on March 3, 2017
There is a curious faux-municipality in the Southern California landscape known as Universal City. It is a city without residents, but it’s not a ghost town. It’s alive with commerce and capitalism. Each day thousands of commuters go to work in its shimmering office buildings and countless studios and sets, and every year millions of people pass through its civic borders to play at the renowned theme park owned by one of the largest entertainment companies in America, Universal Studios.
In Universal City, Karen Randall is the law. She’s the executive vice president and general counsel for Universal Studios. Nearly everything, in a legal sense at least, falls firmly under her jurisdiction. Sitting atop a mound of in-house lawyers and outside legal firms, she advises the company in litigation proceedings, matters of health and safety, issues of crisis management and government relations — which are probably the same thing. (When pressed if she’s also the city attorney for Universal City, she declines comment with a chuckle. So she probably can’t fix a parking ticket here.)
But don’t forget about the pirates. Randall spends a lot of her time battling pirates. These are not the swashbuckling kind you see in the movies, either. They’re the kind who raid the moneyed ships of entertainment companies, like Universal, for their cargo of content and then sell or distribute pirated copies of movies or music, usually over the Internet. It’s dangerous on the digital seas.
“We are essentially an intellectual property company. Our crown jewels are our copyrights,” says Randall, while sitting in her 14th-floor office, high above the golf cart traffic jams of Universal’s back lots. “We have to protect those or we really don’t have anything at all. So anti-piracy has been an increasingly important responsibility of mine.”
Randall says that there have been dramatic changes in this form of criminal activity since she joined Universal in 1996. Peer-to-peer piracy caught many companies offguard, especially the music industry. “No one anticipated Napster,” she says. “We learned a lot from what happened there, and we have been able to fight the battle better.”
After the pirates are caught, Randall’s team makes them walk the plank. Take the case of Kerry Gonzalez, a 25-year-old New Jersey man who posted an early version of Universal’s 2003 release The Hulk on the Internet before its theatrical debut. He pleaded guilty to copyright violation, and the judge sentenced him to six months’ home confinement and three years’ probation, fined him $2,000 and ordered him to pay $5,000 to Universal.
Randall sees this as a landmark case that sends a strong message, though the restitution dollars pale in comparison to the $100 million that accounting firm Deloitte & Touche calculated to be the loss of revenue as a result of the pirated copies.
“I think from [Gonzalez’s] perspective it was a tough outcome,” Randall insists. “And for anyone his age and in his peer group it is a deterrent. Kerry Gonzalez now has a felony record that he’s going to carry with him the rest of his life. And his is just one of many enforcement proceedings going on,” says Randall. “The drum beat is going to get louder.”
A Destiny Fulfilled
Even though she’s tough, Randall has the graciousness of a tenderhearted high-school nurse. Or better yet, your best friend’s mom, who genuinely wants to know how your first year away at college is going. She leans forward on the sofa in the living-room section of her spacious office and smiles earnestly while answering questions in a quiet voice. Occasionally, her eyes are drawn to framed posters of Seabiscuit and A Beautiful Mind, which are two of her favorite recent releases. At one point, she slips through a door along the paneled wall and for a brief moment I’m convinced that she’ll return with a plate of just-baked cookies.
But it’s her résumé that she’s holding. It becomes apparent that she takes immense pride in her work. But this is not hubris. Because she was certain from an early age of what her professional life would be, Randall has a welcomed confidence wrapped inside her composure. She doesn’t have to prove anything anymore, but she doesn’t forget the path to her enviable career summit.
It’s at this point that she shows me the bathroom. Now, a journalistic rule of thumb is that it doesn’t augur well when an interview takes place in the john — even if it’s a private, executive john that includes a shower. But that’s where Randall keeps her media clips, dating back to when she passed the bar and including the announcement in the “trades” of when she was promoted in 2000 to her current position. They are a road map of her career, and each clip is neatly filed under the sink. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the Hollywood celebrities who profess to keep their Oscars and other awards in close proximity of the toilet.
“Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to the business or entertainment world that I am a part of now,” she explains, returning to the couch. “But I always knew that I would either be a doctor or a lawyer, and I really wasn’t interested in medicine. So this is what I always knew I would be doing.”
Randall was raised an only child in Brooklyn. Her mother was an anesthesiologist and her father was a dentist. But it was her grandfather, Myles Paige, who made the strongest impression. Paige was a judge in New York City, and Randall believes he was the first appointed black judge anywhere in the country in 1936. “I was raised in his household and from the time I was very young I was interested in what he did. When I observed him in court, I perceived the power of what he did.”
Randall completed her undergrad work at Vassar and received her juris doctor degree from the UCLA School of Law. She went to work for the Los Angeles law firms of Wyman Bautzer Rothman Kuchel & Silbert and then Katten Muchin & Zavis. While in private practice, her corporate clients included MCA, Spelling Entertainment Group and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, so she’s been well grounded in the entertainment industry for quite some time.
She’s also been an attorney for high-profile individuals, including actor Forest Whitaker and former Los Angeles Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “At the time I was representing Magic Johnson, I did most of the legal work as his main attorney on the business side,” Randall says.
On the personal side, she was also there when a woman in Michigan alleged that Johnson was responsible for her contracting HIV. “It was an interesting case from the point of view of being a lawyer, but the truth is we will never know if what she says is true. We can never be sure which way [the transmission of the HIV virus] went. She could have easily been the source of his virus.” The case was settled, but it still proved very traumatic for Johnson and his family.
Over time Randall spent less time as a litigator and more time developing the skills that would eventually make her such an effective general counsel.
New Challenges for a New Era
Randall’s life became more complicated in mid-2004 when General Electric (which owns NBC) bought Universal. Technically, her company is now NBC Universal. It was the third such transition that Randall has lived through in her tenure at Universal, and she says it’s hard on everyone.
“People get let go and that’s very difficult. It’s also difficult for the people who remain and who have to go through this process. But I think getting acquired by NBC and GE is a big deal. They have a very definite ‘best-results’ company culture.”
Professionally, it called for change too. Randall no longer oversees the television business, which was integrated into NBC’s management structure. She says she misses the daily contact with the legal staff on the TV side.
“The issues that come up continue to be challenging.” She pauses as something crosses her mind and then continues. “One of the areas that reports to me is government relations. The political issues that come up, like Congress taking a shot at violence or sex — and now smoking — in movies is fascinating. We’re trying to figure out what’s the best approach for Universal to take to avoid problems in this area.”
Specifically, one of the problems she is referring to is an issue in Hollywood that has been coined “runaway production,” which is the practice of making movies outside of the United States. Randall was recently introduced to a politician’s wrath about this issue — not directed at her personally, but it’s clear she takes the situation to heart.
Representative Diane Watson of Los Angeles heads the Congressional Entertainment Caucus and recently derided Universal’s decision to film The Cinderella Man in Toronto. The film is being directed by Ron Howard and stars Russell Crowe as the Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock. Watson sent a letter with 27 additional congressional signatures to Motion Picture Association president Jack Valenti urging companies such as Universal to help save American jobs.
Randall says there are creative reasons behind filming the movie in Canada, including that the Toronto Maple Leaf Garden looks like the Madison Square Garden of the 1930s. (The current New York City arena does not.)
“When a politician decides to take one of our movies and make it the poster-child for being against runaway production, that hurts our business,” Randall says, and for the first and only time all afternoon there is the distant hint that she is ready to raise her voice.
“It could discourage a customer from going to the movie; it could cause the movie to be politically incorrect so that it doesn’t get an award. These are bottom-line issues. So I am thinking about what our response and future strategy should be. I don’t want our property to be damaged by some politician taking a shot at it to make a point.”
Randall concedes that there are also economic decisions that matter when it comes to movie-making. When a movie is greenlighted (when it gets the nod to be produced), there are a lot of number-crunchers involved. “There aren’t big profits in the movie business. The movie business is a terrifying business. You can lose your shirt on a movie and, unfortunately, we lose our shirt from time to time. But if we can’t make it for a certain amount of money, then we can’t make it. I do understand the problem, and it’s about jobs. But most of these issues are very, very complicated. We strongly reserve the right to go wherever we need to go for creative reasons.”
Randall looks out her window. The shadows are lengthening over Universal’s nearly 400 acres of production space, sound stages and outdoor sets. But the sun is not setting on Hollywood. Not on Randall’s watch. She insists that most of the money invested in filmmaking is still right here in California — and that she’s got the digital pirates on the run.
In her starring role at Universal Studios, Randall intends to keep the industry thriving because of the fundamental importance of the creative process in society.
“I’m really very proud of a lot of the movies that we make. A lot of them are significant and thoughtful,” she says. “Movies do influence cultures. Really good movies do, at least. And we’ve made some of the really good ones.”