Oscar Glory for ‘Oppenheimer’ Rewards Studio Chief’s Vision


“Queen!”

It was a Friday night in January, and Snoop Dogg had just rolled into a cocktail party hosted by Donna Langley, NBCUniversal’s chief content officer and studios chairwoman. His shouted greeting, paired with a jaunty deferential dance, seemed to leave her a bit embarrassed. “We’re here to celebrate filmmakers and films,” Langley told the room a few minutes later. “This is not about me.”

For an executive who ardently prefers to stay in the background — she declined to be interviewed for this article and dispatched a lieutenant to try and kill it — the 2024 Oscar trail has been an awkward one. Like it or not, this moment in Hollywood history is very much about her.

It was Langley who, in a wild bet on a three-hour period drama about a physicist, gave Christopher Nolan the money to make “Oppenheimer.” It won seven Oscars on Sunday, including the ones for director and best picture. Nolan started his acceptance speech for best director by saying, “Donna Langley — thank you for seeing the potential in this.”

Da’Vine Joy Randolph won the supporting actress Oscar for her performance as a grieving mother and boarding school cook in “The Holdovers,” which was released by Focus Features, a specialty film studio that Langley also oversees.

In a rare achievement, Universal’s creative dominance has coincided with commercial supremacy: The studio was No. 1 at the worldwide box office in 2023, selling nearly $5 billion in tickets and ending an eight-year reign by Disney. Moreover, Universal reached audiences the old-fashioned way — by serving up movies from a mix of genres, with nary a superhero to be found. “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 successes included Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” the comedy “Cocaine Bear” and the horror comedy “M3gan.” Over the weekend, “Kung Fu Panda 4” arrived to a stout $58.3 million in the United States and Canada. (There have, of course, been misfires, including “The Exorcist: Believer,” which bombed in the fall, imperiling a planned trilogy.)

Sometimes your luck runs hot in the casino called Hollywood. But Universal’s strength is also a testament to Langley, 56, who has doggedly sought to make her studio the favored home for Hollywood’s top filmmakers and producers. With ticket buyers starting to push back on superhero spectacles and cookie-cutter franchise sequels, Universal’s first-look deals and partnerships with talents like Jason Blum, James Wan, Jordan Peele, Elizabeth Banks, Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller position the studio for continued prosperity.

“Donna is a spectacular studio boss,” Steven Spielberg, who returned to Universal in 2015 after a period on his own, said in a phone interview. “The relationship between directors and studios has historically been them versus us. There are exceptions and Donna is one of them. She is with us.”

Spielberg added that he showed Langley “a very early cut” of his 2022 cinematic memoir, “The Fabelmans,” which was nominated for seven Academy Awards. “Not because I was obligated to do that,” Spielberg said. “Not because I was trying to gain approval or fish for compliments. I needed Donna’s ideas about how to make the movie better.”

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

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

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 coming from Disney, Netflix and Warner Bros.) who engaged in bare-knuckled union negotiations with writers and actors last year, resulting in strikes. She recently lost a bidding war with Warner Bros. for a new film from Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) in part because she refused to concede to a highly unusual deal point: Coogler wanted the copyright to revert to him after a period of time. Warner agreed.

Universal, which will release 19 movies this year, has also benefited from competitor instability.

Disney’s movie operation has struggled with quality, leading the company to trim its output; it will release 10 films this year. Warner Bros., which has a dozen movies on its 2024 release calendar, has been tossed between owners, and its corporate parent is widely viewed in Hollywood as a merger candidate. (Potentially with NBCUniversal.) Paramount will release nine movies as its parent company contends with a rapidly decaying cable television business and streaming expenses.

Universal is owned by Comcast, which has been comparatively stable. “Film has always been a priority for Comcast and under Donna’s leadership we wanted to make sure she had the resources to invest in talent and creators who would want to call Universal home,” Brian L. Roberts, Comcast’s chief executive, wrote in an email.

Langley came to Hollywood in 1991 and toiled 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 a New Line Cinema executive, and he hired her as his assistant. (De Luca is now co-chairman and chief executive of Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group.) She climbed rungs at New Line until joining Universal in 2001.

“Sometimes there is a feeling of operating scared in our industry — let me take the path of least resistance, let me do the thing that is the least risky because the environment is tough,” said Will Packer, the Universal-based producer of hits 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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