Donna Langley – Know When to Hold 'Em
Fast Company|November 2021
Universal Pictures’ Donna Langley acted fast to save the studio’s tentpole films. But, as she explains, the business was changing anyway.
By Yasmin Gagne

DONNA LANGLEY

EARLY JOB

Hostess at L.A. nightclub the Roxbury “to pay my rent while I was interning for free in the daytime.”

TITLE

Named Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) by the queen in 2020

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.

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?

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 theater going 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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM FAST COMPANYView All

Seeing and Believing

Manipulated images are rampant, and problematic. Adobe, the photo-editing forebearer, has a solution.

4 mins read
Fast Company
November 2021

When 55,000 People Find One Common Voice

At Purdue University, persistence and innovation lead to branding success

3 mins read
Fast Company
November 2021

Donna Langley – Know When to Hold 'Em

Universal Pictures’ Donna Langley acted fast to save the studio’s tentpole films. But, as she explains, the business was changing anyway.

8 mins read
Fast Company
November 2021

Amazon Unpacked A-Z

It doesn’t matter that Jeff Bezos has stepped down: No industry is safe from the company’s relentless ambition. A complete guide to Amazon’s staggeringly large and ever-mutating domain, most of which you can’t even see.

10+ mins read
Fast Company
November 2021

We're in Uncharted Territory

Nobody said it would be easy.

1 min read
Fast Company
November 2021

Big Tech Won't Save Us

Societal problems only seem to get worse when Silicon Valley puts its mind to fixing them. But there is a glimmer of hope.

6 mins read
Fast Company
November 2021

Depop – Young and Restless

The clothing-resale platform Depop has become both a style and social hub for Gen Z. CEO Maria Raga explains how.

4 mins read
Fast Company
November 2021

On Impact

Fast Company's Impact Council presents a blueprint for change

3 mins read
Fast Company
November 2021

Rethinking the power of nutrition

KATE FARMS' INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO NUTRITION OFFERS A NEW OPTION FOR PEOPLE WITH HEALTH CONDITIONS OR ON A WELLNESS JOURNEY

2 mins read
Fast Company
November 2021

The power of play as a teaching tool

CATERPILLAR’S LIFE-SIZE HOT WHEELS RACE TRACK SHOWCASES THE VALUE OF STEM EDUCATION AND THE LATEST IN CAT MACHINE INNOVATION

2 mins read
Fast Company
November 2021