How Donna Langley, Universal’s film chair, figures out what to release

As theaters across the U.S. shuttered their doorways in March 2020, Donna Langley wanted to save her motion pictures. The Common Filmed Leisure Group chairman of two years acted swiftly, pushing again the release of the newest installments of the Quick & Livid and James Bond franchises. She made different movies accessible on streaming companies for a premium; Trolls World Tour ended up pulling in $100 million in three weeks that April, greater than the unique Trolls film earned throughout 5 months in theaters. Fortunately, Langley, 53, is used to taking dangers. The British film govt constructed a profession making costly bets on seemingly area of interest motion pictures that discovered extensive audiences—together with Pitch Good, Straight Outta Compton, and Get Out (see sidebar, subsequent web page). Right here’s how she walks the road between artwork and commerce in a quickly altering atmosphere.

When the pandemic started, Common had 15 motion pictures set for release that yr, and no precedent for the way to go about releasing them. How did you resolve which to maintain, and which to make accessible by way of video on demand?

It was vital to be decisive [and] not reactive. There was a lack of expertise, so a few of it was intestine intuition. My motto is, “Put together for the worst and hope for the most effective.”


Once you assume again on the best way you launched Trolls World Tour—on streaming platforms, corresponding to Apple TV, Amazon, and Google Play, for a premium value of $19.99—how does it look in hindsight?

The [entertainment] trade was altering earlier than the pandemic. The pandemic accelerated loads of tendencies. We would like many individuals to have the option to see our motion pictures, so providing them within the house prior to earlier than [at a premium] has turned out to be a terrific factor. Premium video on demand gave us the flexibility to add a further income stream into our mannequin. Now, windowing—the time between providing a film digitally and its theatrical release—is high of thoughts for us.

Nonetheless, you’ve been vocal in your perception that the theatergoing expertise will survive. Why do you’re feeling that means?

As a result of it’s a pastime that individuals like. Issues usually are not binary. I really like to sit on the sofa and watch a terrific present—I can’t await the following season of Succession—however I additionally beloved seeing Black Widow within the cinema. Viewer preferences will have an effect on how we [distribute] content material and would possibly have an effect on what we make over time, however theatrical is just not going away.

Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit towards Disney for releasing Black Widow on demand whereas it was in theaters. It looks as if actors and administrators might want various things than the studio needs, or what audiences would possibly need.

There are loads of variables to it, however because it comes to every particular person film, I’m lucky to have an unbelievable staff of senior leaders. They’re in a position to convey their experience to bear [upon] any one in every of these selections. The initially objective is to assist the film in one of the best ways attainable for the inventive expertise who’ve been concerned in it and making it, after which clearly defending the enterprise mannequin of it.

Moviemaking is a enterprise, however it’s additionally an artwork. How do you steadiness these two elements, particularly after they’re typically at odds?


Once you set out to make a film with a bunch of individuals, it’s like launching a brand new product or a brand new enterprise each time. [That’s] as a result of each film is completely different relying on the individuals concerned. It’s vital to sit down [with a director] initially and ensure that we now have a shared philosophy. My objective is to talk about [the creative vision] and set the funds vary up entrance. We all know what’s business and what we’ll want to make one thing profitable by way of a advertising and marketing marketing campaign. Oftentimes, early on, we will inform [when] a director is taken with making a special model of [a movie] than what we expect can be finest. In that case, you could have to be ready to stroll away. You may have to be ready to lose the film if it’s not coming collectively the best way you need it to.

Early in your profession, you labored within the story division at [production company] New Line Cinema. How do you notice promising initiatives?

You possibly can’t beat good old school ardour. [I love it] when somebody says, “I’ve to make this film.” Good writing additionally grabs you instantly. I keep in mind the primary script I fell in love with, Boogie Nights. Not too long ago, it’s She Stated [based on the book by New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about their investigation of Harvey Weinstein]. After 5 pages, I knew I wished to make the film.

Earlier than that, you had been an assistant. What did you be taught from the expertise?

My first boss [an agent at Writers and Artists agency] was the primary feminine agent ever to promote a spec screenplay for one million {dollars}. She principally represented writers. As a result of it was simply the 2 of us, her shoppers would need to speak to me if she was unavailable. [That’s how] I discovered how to converse to artists and relate to them. I acquired to see their vulnerability. At New Line, I acquired hands-on expertise making movies. One of many first I labored on was Se7en. It was thrilling to see that film undergo the screening course of. The ending by no means examined very effectively, however it grew to become a cult basic.

What recommendation do you give your assistants now?

We’re hardwired to be eager about the following step. I encourage [that], however [I say to] steadiness it with pondering, The place am I right this moment? Do I convey worth to my supervisor? To my coworkers? What do I contribute? It provides you perspective and helps you’re taking inventory. It additionally provides you confidence. I don’t assume different individuals can worth you until you perceive what worth you convey.

MAKING NICHE CONTENT UNIVERSAL: Langley has a method of “super-serving an underserved viewers.” Listed below are some successes.

Throughout your 20 years at Common, you’ve overseen tons of of initiatives. What have you ever discovered about managing inventive individuals?

A quick no is healthier than a sluggish one. Individuals are coming to me as a result of they need me to say sure. I choose to be forthright. Typically being sincere is telling any individual one thing that they won’t need to hear. My objective is to agree on the imaginative and prescient early after which assist the inventive expertise to do their finest work. If I come to a set, it needs to be purely ceremonial. It needs to be to have a cup of tea. If it’s for another cause, then we’ve all failed.

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

Criticism is just not a foul factor if it’s delivered appropriately and with compassion. There’s just one means to do it, and that’s to know what you’re speaking about. You may have to do the work. There’s no shortcut. If any individual writes a script, then it’s your job to learn that script sufficient occasions to perceive it. Something lower than that’s disrespectful. Artists [are] typically intuitive. They know in the event that they’re being shined on. The perfect factor you are able to do is to be constructive and easy with them.


What do you do once you begin to understand {that a} film goes to be a miss?

No one units out to make a foul film. It may possibly occur because of many alternative issues as a result of there are such a lot of components that go into making one. The overall feeling has to be one in every of optimism and problem-solving. You need to do all the pieces you possibly can—modifying, altering the advertising and marketing technique—to make one thing the most effective that it may possibly probably be. I by no means surrender on something. It’s a heartbreak when it occurs each couple of years.

For at the very least a decade, there was elevated strain to make motion pictures that can succeed abroad. On the identical time, the proliferation of streaming choices has made it in order that audiences have grow to be extra area of interest. Do these modifications have an effect on the way you method your work?

[Streaming] generally is a nice vacation spot for motion pictures that won’t do as effectively in theaters. I believe [that if you make a] nice piece of related content material with a advertising and marketing marketing campaign that tells [a particular] underserved group why it issues, it will get individuals speaking, after which extra individuals see it. For that to work, the film has to be unique sufficient. We’ve had huge success [doing that] with motion pictures like Women Journey, Pitch Good, and Straight Outta Compton.

What have you ever been watching throughout quarantine?

I simply completed Hacks, which was sensible. I watch loads of motion pictures with my children, who’re 10 and 12. I’m most likely ruining them as a result of I’m exhibiting them loads of R-rated comedies, a few of which I used to be concerned in. Final night time we watched Bridesmaids. I forgot about that awkward opening scene . . . they’re a bit too younger for that.