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