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How Universal’s top film exec figures out what to release where

Donna Langley, chair of Universal Filmed Entertainment, acted fast to save the studio’s tentpole films when COVID hit. But, she says, the business was changing rapidly anyway.

How Universal’s top film exec figures out what to release where
[Photo: Tracy Nguyen]

As theaters around the U.S. shuttered their doors in March 2020, Donna Langley needed to save her movies. The Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman of two years acted swiftly, pushing back the release of the latest installments of the Fast & Furious and James Bond franchises. She made other films available on streaming services for a premium; Trolls World Tour ended up pulling in $100 million in three weeks that April, more than the original Trolls movie earned during five months in theaters. Luckily, Langley, 53, is used to taking risks. The British film executive built a career making expensive bets on seemingly niche movies that found wide audiences—including Pitch Perfect, Straight Outta Compton, and Get Out (see sidebar, next page). Here’s how she walks the line between art and commerce in a rapidly changing environment.

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When the pandemic began, Universal had 15 movies set for release that year, and no precedent for how to go about releasing them. How did you decide which to hold, and which to make available through video on demand?

It was important to be decisive [and] not reactive. There was a lack of information, so some of it was gut instinct. My motto is, “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

When you think back on the way you released Trolls World Tour—on streaming platforms, such as Apple TV, Amazon, and Google Play, for a premium price of $19.99—how does it look in hindsight?

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The [entertainment] industry was changing before the pandemic. The pandemic accelerated a lot of trends. We want many people to be able to see our movies, so offering them in the home sooner than before [at a premium] has turned out to be a great thing. Premium video on demand gave us the ability to add an additional revenue stream into our model. Now, windowing—the time between offering a movie digitally and its theatrical release—is top of mind for us.

Still, you’ve been vocal in your belief that the theatergoing experience will survive. Why do you feel that way?

Because it’s a pastime that people like. Things are not binary. I love to sit on the couch and watch a great show—I can’t wait for the next season of Succession—but I also loved seeing Black Widow in the cinema. Viewer preferences will affect how we [distribute] content and might affect what we make over time, but theatrical is not going away.

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Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Disney for releasing Black Widow on demand while it was in theaters. It seems like actors and directors may want different things than the studio wants, or what audiences might want.

There are a lot of variables to it, but as it comes to each individual movie, I am fortunate to have an incredible team of senior leaders. They are able to bring their expertise to bear [upon] any one of these decisions. The first and foremost goal is to support the movie in the best way possible for the creative talent who have been involved in it and making it, and then obviously protecting the business model of it.

Moviemaking is a business, but it’s also an art. How do you balance those two aspects, especially when they’re often at odds?

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When you set out to make a movie with a group of people, it’s like launching a new product or a new business every time. [That’s] because every movie is different depending on the people involved. It’s important to sit down [with a director] at the beginning and make sure that we have a shared philosophy. My goal is to discuss [the creative vision] and set the budget range up front. We know what’s commercial and what we will need to make something successful in terms of a marketing campaign. Oftentimes, early on, we can tell [when] a director is interested in making a different version of [a movie] than what we think would be best. In that case, you have to be prepared to walk away. You have to be prepared to lose the movie if it’s not coming together the way you want it to.

Early in your career, you worked in the story department at [production company] New Line Cinema. How do you spot promising projects?

You can’t beat good old-fashioned passion. [I love it] when someone says, “I have to make this movie.” Good writing also grabs you immediately. I remember the first script I fell in love with, Boogie Nights. Recently, it’s She Said [based on the book by New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about their investigation of Harvey Weinstein]. After five pages, I knew I wanted to make the movie.

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Before that, you were an assistant. What did you learn from the experience?

My first boss [an agent at Writers and Artists agency] was the first female agent ever to sell a spec screenplay for a million dollars. She mostly represented writers. Because it was just the two of us, her clients would want to talk to me if she was unavailable. [That’s how] I learned how to speak to artists and relate to them. I got to see their vulnerability. At New Line, I got hands-on experience making films. One of the first I worked on was Se7en. It was exciting to see that movie go through the screening process. The ending never tested very well, but it became a cult classic.

What advice do you give your assistants now?

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We’re hardwired to be thinking about the next step. I encourage [that], but [I say to] balance it with thinking, Where am I today? Do I bring value to my manager? To my coworkers? What do I contribute? It gives you perspective and helps you take stock. It also gives you confidence. I don’t think other people can value you unless you understand what value you bring.

MAKING NICHE CONTENT UNIVERSAL: Langley has a strategy of “super-serving an underserved audience.” Here are some successes.

During your 20 years at Universal, you’ve overseen hundreds of projects. What have you learned about managing creative people?

A fast no is better than a slow one. People are coming to me because they want me to say yes. I prefer to be forthright. Sometimes being honest is telling somebody something that they might not want to hear. My goal is to agree on the vision early and then support the creative talent to do their best work. If I come to a set, it should be purely ceremonial. It should be to have a cup of tea. If it’s for any other reason, then we’ve all failed.

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It sounds like you aren’t afraid of handing out criticism.

Criticism is not a bad thing if it’s delivered appropriately and with compassion. There’s only one way to do it, and that’s to know what you’re talking about. You have to do the work. There’s no shortcut. If somebody writes a script, then it’s your job to read that script enough times to understand it. Anything less than that is disrespectful. Artists [are] generally intuitive. They know if they’re being shined on. The best thing you can do is to be constructive and straightforward with them.

What do you do when you start to realize that a movie is going to be a miss?

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Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. It can happen as a result of many different things because there are so many factors that go into making one. The general feeling has to be one of optimism and problem-solving. You want to do everything you can—editing, changing the marketing strategy—to make something the best that it can possibly be. I never give up on anything. It’s a heartbreak when it happens every couple of years.

For at least a decade, there has been increased pressure to make movies that will succeed overseas. At the same time, the proliferation of streaming options has made it so that audiences have become more niche. Do these changes affect how you approach your work?

[Streaming] can be a great destination for movies that may not do as well in theaters. I think [that if you make a] great piece of relevant content with a marketing campaign that tells [a particular] underserved community why it matters, it gets people talking, and then more people see it. For that to work, the movie has to be original enough. We’ve had enormous success [doing that] with movies like Girls Trip, Pitch Perfect, and Straight Outta Compton.

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What have you been watching during quarantine?

I just finished Hacks, which was brilliant. I watch a lot of movies with my kids, who are 10 and 12. I’m probably ruining them because I’m showing them a lot of R-rated comedies, some of which I was involved in. Last night we watched Bridesmaids. I forgot about that awkward opening scene . . . they’re a bit too young for that.

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