Universal Chairman Donna Langley Bet Big on 'Oppenheimer'


It was a Friday evening in January, and Snoop Dogg had just attended a cocktail party hosted by NBCUniversal Chief Content Officer and Studios President Donna Langley. Her shouted greeting, coupled with a playful and deferential dance, seemed to leave her a little embarrassed. “We’re here to celebrate filmmakers and films,” Langley told the room a few minutes later. “It’s not about me.”

For an executive who ardently prefers to stay in the background – she refused to be interviewed for this article and sent a lieutenant to try to kill him – the journey to the 2024 Oscars has been tricky. Like it or not, this moment in Hollywood history concerns her a lot.

It was Langley who, in a crazy gamble on a three-hour drama about a physicist, gave Christopher Nolan the money to make “Oppenheimer.” He won seven Oscars Sunday, including those for director and best picture. Nolan began his acceptance speech for Best Director by saying, “Donna Langley, thank you for seeing the potential in this.”

Da'Vine Joy Randolph won the Academy Award for Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a grieving mother and boarding school cook in “Leftovers”, which was released by Focus Features, a specialty film studio that Langley also oversees.

Rarely, Universal's creative dominance coincided with commercial supremacy: the studio was No. 1 at the global box office in 2023, selling nearly $5 billion in tickets and ending an eight-year Disney reign . Plus, Universal reached audiences the old-fashioned way – by offering films from a mix of genres, without finding superheroes. “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” ($1.4 billion) led the way, followed by “Oppenheimer» ($958 million), “Fast X” ($705 million), “Five Nights at Freddy's» ($291 million) and “Migration” ($279 million).

Other Universal hits include Wes Anderson's “Asteroid City,” the comedy “Cocaine Bear“and horror comedy”M3gan.” During the weekend, “Kung Fu Panda 4» grossed $58.3 million in the United States and Canada. (There were some duds, of course, including “The Exorcist: Believer,” which bombed in the fall, jeopardizing a planned trilogy.)

Sometimes your luck is hot in the casino called Hollywood. But Universal's strength is also a testament to Langley, 56, who has doggedly sought to make his studio the home of choice for Hollywood's biggest filmmakers and producers. As ticket buyers begin to object to cookie-cutter superhero spectacles and franchise sequels, Universal's early deals and partnerships with talent like Jason Blum, James Wan, Jordan Peele, Elizabeth Banks, Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. positioning the studio for continued prosperity.

“Donna is a spectacular studio boss,” Steven Spielberg, who returned to Universal in 2015 after a lonely period, said in a telephone interview. “Historically, the relationship between directors and studios has been one of them versus us. There are exceptions and Donna is one of them. She is with us.

Spielberg added that he showed Langley “a very rough cut” of his 2022 film memoir, “The Fabelmans,” which was nominated for seven Academy Awards. “Not because I had to do it,” Spielberg said. “Not because I was trying to get approval or looking for compliments. I needed Donna's ideas to improve the film.

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, including “Everywhere All at Once” won seven Oscars last year, including those for directing and best picture, signed an exclusive five-year deal with Universal in 2022.

“We were immediately drawn to Dame Donna Langley and the culture she fostered in her studio,” Kwan and Scheinert wrote in an email. “She is a deeply emotional and creative person who really listens to you when you speak. The first time we had dinner, we talked about integrating gut biome science into criminal justice, climate change, interior design, and finding the perfect shade of yellow. We immediately knew we had found our people. (Langley, who grew up on the Isle of Wight, was appointed Lady Commander of the British Empire in 2020.)

The talent may feel comfortable with Langley, but she also makes it clear that the studio is her priority. She was one of four executives (the others from Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros.) who signed on bare-handed union negotiations with writers and actors last year, leading to strikes. It recently lost a bidding war with Warner Bros. for a new Ryan Coogler film (“Black Panther”), in part because she refused to budge on a very unusual point: Coogler wanted the copyright to revert to her after a certain period of time. . Warner agreed..

Universal, which will release 19 films this year, has also benefited from the instability of its competitors.

Disney's film operation experienced quality problems, leading the company to reduce production; he will release 10 films this year. Warner Bros., which has a dozen films on its 2024 release schedule, has been thrown between the owners, and its parent company is widely seen in Hollywood as a merger candidate. (Potentially with NBCUniversal.) Paramount will release nine films as its parent company struggles with a rapidly declining cable TV business and streaming spending.

Universal is owned by Comcast, which is relatively stable. “Film has always been a priority for Comcast and under Donna's leadership, we wanted to ensure it had the resources to invest in the talent and creators who would want to call Universal home,” wrote Brian L. Roberts , Comcast CEO, in an email. .

Langley arrived in Hollywood in 1991 and worked as an unpaid intern at a literary agency while working at a nightclub on the Sunset Strip. At the club, she met Michael De Luca, then an executive at New Line Cinema, and he hired her as an assistant. (De Luca is now co-chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group.) She rose through the ranks at New Line until joining Universal in 2001.

“Sometimes there is a sense of fear in our industry – let me take the path of least resistance, let me do the thing that is least risky because the environment is difficult,” said Will Packer, the Universal-based hit producer. like “Girls Trip” and “Ride Along”.

“I don’t get that feeling from the team at Universal,” he continued. “And to the creative community that makes all the difference.”

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