Universal’s boss Donna Langley on the streaming wars and making movies in the pandemic

Donna Langley solely seems forward. She strikes at tempo by means of the packed eating room of La Petite Maison, a French Mediterranean restaurant in a Mayfair aspect road. We are a good distance from LA, the place she might snap a profession in two. I’m having lunch with most likely the strongest girl in Hollywood. Chair of Universal Pictures, she has taken a failing studio — the oldest in America nonetheless making movies — and restored it to impolite, disruptive well being.

The 53-year-old Briton is an everyday right here when again in London. “We came after closing the Bond deal,” she tells me. Among her latest releases is No Time to Die. Doing enterprise with a model already well-known has been a uncommon luxurious. Her triumphs embody Oscar-winners (Green Book), cultural firestarters (Get Out) and the home franchise Fast & Furious, whose newest episode, F9, not too long ago topped the field workplace in the US, Russia and China. All had been gambles in a world of superhero sagas.

She grew to become Universal’s sole chair in 2013. Since then — after many doldrum years — the studio has twice grossed greater than a cumulative $5bn. She has additionally overseen the return of Steven Spielberg to the studio the place he started his profession. But Covid-19 made even mannequin companies take emergency measures. Universal’s previous glitters with landmarks: Spielberg’s Jaws and ET, Scarface, Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Last 12 months, these had been joined by Trolls World Tour — the unlikely automobile of a revolution.

Amid the pandemic, Langley used the film to dealer a complete new relationship between Hollywood and streaming — and, by extension, cinemas. “What else were we going to do?” she asks. Universal went into the lockdowns of 2020 and not using a streaming arm to generate money movement. “I’m good in a crisis. So even with so much noise and fear, I felt very calm.”


Sending employees residence for 2 weeks, she pushed pending movies into 2021. But Trolls World Tour — sequel to a critically unnoticed however widespread 2016 household animation, using the voices of Justin Timberlake and James Corden — was bought as an alternative on streaming websites the similar day it opened in (drive-in) cinemas. This was remarkable. In the subsequent three weeks, it might make nearly $100m on-line, greater than the unique made in 5 months in cinemas.

A waiter hovers. Despite the incontrovertible fact that she moved to the US in 1991, Langley’s accent is barely evenly transatlantic. She appears happy after I point out it. “I still feel British.” I ask how and she tries out solutions — “a mannerisms thing?” — then stalls. “I’ll have to come back to that.” She has picked up American tastes, although. A great iced tea is not possible to search out in London, she says. She orders one anyway.

100 million {dollars} was not all Langley bought when Trolls World Tour began streaming. There was fury too. In repairing Universal’s backside line, she unilaterally ended the sacred “90-day window” of unique entry cinemas have lengthy loved to studio movies. Removing their USP as the solely place to see the largest movies first, she grew to become their Bond villain. The suspicion was that this new system would proceed after lockdown. (It has.) Other studios would observe. (They did.) AMC — the world’s largest cinema operator — introduced a boycott of Universal movies.

I inform her it typically appears as if cinemas really feel the world owes them a favour. She pauses. Langley has totally different pauses. They might be amused, as should you had expressed a thought she couldn’t. (Would making superhero movies bore her? Pause.) Or they are often chillier. When I point out London gossip final autumn suggesting that No Time to Die was out there to streamers for $600m, she is silent, then terse. “I don’t know anything about that.” (Speculation has surrounded how shut the movie now could be to a revenue.) On the neediness of cinema chains, a small smile escapes. “I would reframe that.”


When you place a film in a cinema, you make the film matter. Look at Bond. With streamers, folks speak about ‘Succession’

Yet in 2021 peace has damaged out. Cinemas are open, with Langley’s movies key to drawing again crowds. And all studios now stream even blockbusters way more shortly than was thinkable in 2020. Where a “window” stays in any respect, it’s for 45 or 30 days — or, as in the deal later brokered between Universal and a radically pacified AMC, 17. It is as if the previous order by no means existed. “Now every company is doing disruptive things, it seems obvious, doesn’t it?” Langley says. In the motion film of our lunch, the director would reduce to her smoking gun.

She may have the niçoise salad. “I’ve been craving it. They cook the tuna sous vide.” She sells it so nicely that I’m tempted too. “Have it! Write about the tuna.” Another waiter arrives with a glass of one thing like a viscous Coke. This is Langley’s iced tea. Should it fizz? “It really shouldn’t.” A sip. “It tastes quite good. It has no resemblance to iced tea.”

Universal now has its personal streamer, Peacock. Langley argues that film theatres can thrive even when streamers present the similar movies. “Our business relies on that, so I have to believe it. But I do believe it. When you position a movie in a cinema, with the sense of event cinema brings, you make the movie matter. Look at Bond. With streamers, people talk about Succession. No one talks about their films.”


But streamers have, she says, impressed a crazed sellers’ marketplace for expertise. Keeping tempo takes ability. “Filmmakers have a good experience with us. And our marketing has to be brilliant, because we’re not Disney. We don’t have endless intellectual property.” (The studio has by no means acquired a comic-book firm like Disney’s Marvel; the Fast & Furious collection was homegrown.)

Langley talks about Universal with samurai loyalty, casting it as sensible, even “scrappy”. “We’re not a Tiffany brand like Warner Bros.” One Hollywood relationship that didn’t survive 2020 was that of Warner and historically minded director Christopher Nolan. Having attacked his longtime backers for focusing on streamer HBO Max, Nolan will make his subsequent movie — a biopic of Robert Oppenheimer — for Langley. She smiles. “Chris has always been a priority for us.” At Universal, his film may have a bespoke launch — in cinemas for at the very least 90 days.

Nolan joins Spielberg amongst the studio’s large beasts. (Spielberg’s subsequent movie, The Fabelmans, might be launched by Universal in 2022.) But Hollywood is in flux round them. If blue-chip administrators nonetheless have lustre, the dwindled standing of film stars was in the highlight this 12 months when Scarlett Johansson sued Disney in one other streaming-related dispute — to Langley, “the type of public situation you avoid at all costs”. Tech firms have crashed the business. Langley says #MeToo has rightly seen off many old-time energy brokers. She want to rework the gates at the Universal lot. “Because grand, monolithic studio gates say ‘keep out’. And I want to flip that.”

She brings her fingers collectively. “Look at us!” Two giant glass bowls have appeared, the variety an ice-cream sundae is perhaps served in. They brim with tuna niçoise. “Bon appétit,” she beams.

La Petite Maison

53-54 Brook’s Mews, London, W1K 4EG

Salade niçoise x2 £57

Sparkling water £5

Lemon iced tea £6

Service cost (13.5%) £9.18

Total £77.18

Langley and her husband, inside designer Ramin Shamshiri, have a second residence in Ojai, north-west of LA, that typically turns up in Architectural Digest. The couple and their two youngsters have spent the pandemic there. Langley has blended emotions about LA. The homeless drawback depresses her. “But there’s a lot I love.” Pause. “It’s easy to navigate.”

She grew up on the Nineteen Seventies Isle of Wight. Her father was an engineer for the Civil Aviation Authority, her mom an activist who took her on Greenpeace marches. The couple had adopted Langley at a 12 months previous. Her organic father was Egyptian. As a baby, she has stated, she imagined him as Omar Sharif. She has by no means sought her beginning dad and mom. Her relationship along with her adoptive dad and mom stays shut. She will go to them the day after our lunch, nonetheless on the Isle of Wight. “The land that time forgot,” she says, fondly.

She has stated, too, that figuring out she was adopted gave her independence — a way of risk. She left for LA at 22, plans open-ended. She arrived with a letter of introduction to a literary agent however bought a job at the Roxbury, a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard favoured by younger Hollywood. Regulars included producer Michael De Luca, who employed her for his firm New Line. Langley is upfront about not rising up a movie lover. Yet one thing in her locked on to the mechanics of making and promoting leisure. She grew to become a fast-learning factotum — scouring monetary reviews, watching unedited “dailies” from shoots, together with the first Austin Powers movies.

She joined Universal in 2001. If studio life promised safety, actuality lurched between crises. Moving up, she typically fearful for everybody’s jobs. “I’m opinionated,” she says of years listening to unhealthy choices. “And I will offer my opinion so I can sleep at night. But if the person in charge wants it a different way, you have to accept it.” Later, a PS: “There was imposter syndrome too.” Langley had her first little one in 2009; the similar 12 months, she was promoted to co-chair by an unwieldy power-share between mum or dad firms Comcast and General Electric. Hollywood whispered. “There was a funny narrative that I was too smart.”

I by no means skilled something horrific however there was a vibe that wouldn’t be tolerated at the moment. It’s why I’m impressed by Gen Z. They’re simply not having it

In 2013, Comcast acquired the entire studio. Langley was named sole head. It seemed a poisoned chalice, however popular culture proved her secret sauce. A appeal offensive secured the rights to Fifty Shades of Grey from author EL James; Fast & Furious grew to become ever extra Herculean. A movie similar to Steve Jobs introduced sheen, however a shrewd eye for untold tales greenlit Straight Outta Compton, a crowd-pleasing biopic of rappers NWA.

Langley’s technique felt like Hollywood moneyball — an ingenious use of restricted sources. Underpinned by expertise relationships, the method holds. Her upcoming slate runs from Jurassic World: Dominion to hip auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, from figuring out slasher movies to Oscar favorite Belfast. Plenty of splash — no finances sufficiently big to sink the ship.

At first, Langley was one among simply two ladies operating a serious Hollywood studio. The 2015 firing of Sony’s Amy Pascal made that one. “You can only keep fighting the fight,” she says. But #MeToo has introduced reckonings. Next 12 months Universal will launch She Said, tailored from the e book by reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, whose work helped expose Harvey Weinstein.

“I never experienced anything horrific in my career but there was a vibe that wouldn’t be tolerated today. It’s why I’m impressed by Gen Z. They’re just not having it.” Langley got here up by means of a Nineteen Nineties movie enterprise now identified to be riddled with abuse. Was she stunned at what emerged? “I was. And horrified.” There is an audible full cease. “How do you like the tuna?”

The tuna is nice, I say.

Early in her profession at Universal, she staked her capital on getting the Abba musical Mamma Mia! produced. “There was some pushback.” Was it sexism? “I’d say people didn’t like Abba as much as I did.” Still, a precept was concerned. “It was very intentional to make movies for underserved audiences. Maybe because I am one.” The movie value $52m. Released in 2008, it grossed $603m.

Langley can be a lady of color who has championed black horror film-maker Jordan Peele. His 2017 debut Get Out (finances $4.5m) was an electrical satire of race in America. It made a revenue of $251m. Few industries have agonised over variety like Hollywood. To Langley, a few of the resolution is easy: capitalism. Making intelligent, accessible movies by and about ladies or folks of color is, she says, the proper factor and a ticket vendor. “And we did it before it became an industry imperative.”

Describing successes, she typically says “we”. (“We’ve rehabilitated the studio.”) The lacking “I” is a part of a deliberate break with tyrannical “studio heads of yesteryear”. Langley additionally says she nonetheless wants interior “swagger” to make choices of scale. (She fortunately quotes NWA’s Ice Cube calling her the group’s sixth member. He additionally instructed a cinema homeowners’ conference they lacked “balls as big as Donna Langley”.)

Her choice for intestine intuition is old-world too. She says she likes knowledge however you sense she likes it most when it agrees along with her. Given the billions of {dollars} of danger a studio slate entails, she goes with what works. Does she lose her mood? “Nu-uh. It takes a lot to rattle me. But I don’t have a problem being honest.”

Our salad vases are cleared away. She passes on espresso. And so, with deathly inevitability, to Cats. For all the black ink on Langley’s ledger, little in fashionable Hollywood tanked like director Tom Hooper’s 2019 musical, closely backed by Universal. Its befurred human solid grew to become a laughing inventory. She sighs. “Without the fur, there was a great movie. But we were chasing technology that doesn’t exist.” Did Rum Tum Tugger pressure her to overview her decision-making? “Of course, I take responsibility. Starting with saying, ‘Wow, I was really wrong about that.’”

More choices await. Her entire enterprise faces a battle for the consideration of Gen Z; October’s near-strike by Hollywood crews was an indication of bother in paradise. (There are “potential areas of improvement”, Langley admits.) Then there’s Peacock, overseen by Comcast. For all her company loyalty, Langley’s love for streaming is finite. Given that she believes the magic of movies is right down to cinema’s sense of event, is a superb movie that premieres on a laptop computer a contradiction in phrases? “I have to believe otherwise.” Such is Langley’s final gamble — that in closing the hole between cinemas and streamers, she hasn’t damaged the spell herself.

A closing query. All Hollywood careers have buried our bodies. Where are hers? She drily rolls her eyes. “I know how to get my way. But my parents did a good job. I like to be respectful. And I don’t air dirty laundry.” The FT settles the invoice. “I’ll say this. It was bumpy at the studio when I came up. Unpleasant. And that was a strong incentive to do it differently once I could set the tone.” Studios have historically been crammed with studio folks, behaving terribly. “Well, I’ve always had an outsider’s perspective.”

Danny Leigh is the FT’s movie critic

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