Langley brings distinctive films to studio

Universal is enjoying a boffo summer at the box office.

Three pictures — “Wanted,” “Mamma Mia!” and “The Incredible Hulk” — have passed the $100-million mark both domestically and internationally, while “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” even if it never reaches that mark Stateside, is outpacing “The Dark Knight” overseas. Only “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” has fallen short of $100 million to date.

It’s no surprise that studio chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde recently reupped production prexy Donna Langley for another three-year term.

She’s the studio menu-maker and gatekeeper, the person who finds and shapes the material, assembles and supervises the pictures that get made.

What became U’s summer 2008 roster appeared initially as little more than an eclectic set of movies appealing to distinct demos made by a range of unusual helmers.

When British-born Langley, 40, first brought the films to the greenlight committee –chief exec Ron Meyer, Shmuger, Linde and the studio’s key marketing and distribution executives — she had no idea when they’d be released.

Actioner “Wanted,” for example, was initially slotted for April but later moved to July, into the heat of the summer action. After Meyer championed the Abba musical “Mamma Mia!,” marketing chief Adam Fogleson saw the wisdom of putting the summer-themed movie into the summer for maximum global appeal. And “The Mummy 3” required a new concept for the post-“Pirates of the Caribbean” world. Setting the ghost story in China capitalized on Jet Li’s appeal to global action fans, including “The Mummy’s” heavily Hispanic audience.

When the studio and producer Marc Platt were developing “Wanted” with Russian director Timor Bekmambetov, Langley realized “the key component of the film’s playability” was the relationship between James McAvoy’s rookie killer and the femme assassin, Fox.

“It was crucial that we get an actor who was sexy and believable as an action hero,” she says. “Angelina Jolie has real credibility. She is that woman. She’s not just a pretty female pretending to wield a gun.”

Jolie can star in any Universal film, as far as Langley is concerned; the thesp also toplines Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” a fall release for the studio that debuted at Cannes and will play the New York Film Fest.

Langley’s career was forged in the heady atmosphere of the Michael DeLuca era at New Line Cinema in the ’90s, when she supervised the “Austin Powers” movies, Ice Cube’s “The Player’s Club” and “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” The New Line spirit was entrepreneurial: Concepts were high and markets were niche. Breaking fresh talent was the goal, Langley says, “rather than going for big backends and A-list producers.”

Langley was wooed to Universal in 2001 by then-chairman Stacey Snider and production prexies Scott Stuber and Mary Parent, also a New Line grad.

“It was a culture shock,” says Langley, who says she learned diplomacy and creative discipline from Snider. “At New Line we didn’t have the luxury of long-term development. Either you just got it right on the first or second round or it didn’t happen.”

When Parent and Stuber left to produce at the studio in 2005, Langley lobbied to get their production post.

The skills that got Langley the job, by all accounts, include her work ethic, her deep relationships and her unflappable nature. Langley can ride the waves with such studio heavyweights as Spike Lee (“Inside Man”), Michael Mann (“Public Enemies”), Brian Grazer (“Frost/Nixon”) and Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (“State of Play”). “I just let it wash over me,” she says. “I look at a situation, see the big picture, prioritize and do what I think best.”

When pressed, Langley admits that the biggest challenge of her job is managing the sheer volume of phone and email messages: “Communicating with everybody in a timely fashion — like ‘good job on the script,’ ‘great screening last night,’ ‘good opening last weekend’ –outreach is a big part of the job,” she says. “People tend to take it personally.”

While the nine-month stint with Snider before she left to join DreamWorks was “boot camp,” Langley says, it was also tough to manage with two brand-new bosses. But Langley knew Shmuger and Linde well and focused on keeping her own department of 15 creative people humming.

Three years later, as the industry has evolved, GE-owned Universal is now “more rigorous in adhering to the bottom line,” she says.

These are anxious times. As the industry constricts, Universal has taken back oversight of its foreign distribution, a move that increasingly shapes Langley’s decisionmaking.

“The biggest shift of emphasis is not looking at anything in purely domestic terms,” Langley says. “We look at our film slates on a global level.”

The past year has been a tough one, though, as the studio dealt with a writers strike and continues to deal with a de facto actors strike. Between December 2007 and the end of June, Universal produced 17 movies. “We were frontloaded,” says Langley, who can breathe now.

She and Working Title scrambled to save “State of Play” after Brad Pitt left the picture during the writers strike, citing script issues. They replaced Pitt with Russell Crowe and Edward Norton with Ben Affleck.

“It’s a different movie than if we had shot it with Brad,” she says. “Russell gives a wonderful, naturalistic performance. In terms of what we set out to achieve, it’s a dramatic thriller with a romantic triangle at the center. That’s intact.”

Crowe was set to reunite with Ridley Scott on the Robin Hood adventure “Nottingham,” which Langley figures would cost between $100 million and $120 million. But SAG uncertainty made it impossible to commit to a narrow shooting window, and the pic was recently postponed.

“It’s a big expensive movie,” Langley says, “all shot outside.” The filmmakers were building sets north of London and needed just the right summer foliage. Universal always insisted that if things weren’t resolved with SAG, it would not proceed with filming until next year. Besides, she says, “We needed the script to bake a little bit.” The film will start next year.

On the other hand, going full-steam ahead with Judd Apatow’s ode to standup comedians, “Funny People,” starring Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler, was an easier call, because stopping and starting would not be an issue. (Langley had aggressively chased the pic, as Apatow has done well for Universal with “40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”)

Universal has plenty of other stuff cooking, too. There’s a George Nolfi “Bourne” script designed to lure back Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon, who collaborated on the upcoming Iraq movie “Green Zone”; a Lee sequel of “Inside Man”; pre-planned reshoots on the improvised Sacha Baron Cohen comedy “Bruno”; and a Nancy Meyers romantic comedy set to start in 2009.

Langley doesn’t buy the suggestion that women are underserved by Hollywood because the studios are reluctant to give them what they clearly want. Rather, chick flicks are tricky to find and execute for a more finicky, discerning audience. “You don’t trip over them every day,” says Langley.

Which reminds her: Work is piling up as we speak. It’s time to return some phone calls.

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