Memo to Universal’s Donna Langley: Avoid Sympathetic Characters

Donna Langley
Koki Nagahama/Getty Images


In keeping with this column’s tradition of dispensing advice to people who haven’t asked for it, I am offering herewith some ideas for you to ponder as you embark on your expanded responsibilities at Universal. Think of them as a version of Bill Maher’s “New Rules”: As such they can be ignored, ridiculed or even implemented. But I figure that running a studio these days is equivalent to combat duty, so any incidental insights may prove helpful.

» In developing a studio slate, Donna, filmmaker relationships are clearly important, but a lineup of hot directors can translate into box office malaise. Remember Universal’s imposing 2005 slate embracing Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Peter Jackson and Sam Mendes? They all had off years at the box office (Spielberg’s offering that year was “Munich,” Jackson’s “King Kong”).

» Efforts to replicate past successes are tempting, but they can also be self-defeating. The players responsible for Oscar winner “A Beautiful Mind” (Russell Crowe, Akiva Goldsman, Brian Grazer et al.) were summoned by your studio a year later to make “Cinderella Man.” Their minds weren’t that beautiful the second time around.

» Corporate CEOs like to bring in outside consultants, but fight them off, Donna. While these gurus make good speeches, they never provide useful guidance. Remember when Universal brought in a “futurist” named Watts Wacker, who told the studio that audiences were demanding personal stories with meaning — projects that would fit the new national obsession for “scrapbooking.” The “obsession” quickly ended, and so did the scrapbooking trend.

» It’s always comfortable to work with personal friends on films except for the fact that the friendships usually implode — witness Revolution’s Joe Roth and writer-director Martin Brest concerning “Gigli.”

» While your talents at diplomacy are admired by associates, Donna, it may nonetheless prove helpful to study the political talents of Ron Meyer, who has survived five owners representing four nationalities. Ron has said no to hundreds of filmmakers over the years, but most people still consider him their best friend — even those who have never met him.

» It seems prudent to avoid making films with sympathetic protagonists. Filmgoers have grown accustomed to the sorts of characters who populate “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “American Hustle,” possibly because they represent the 1% that everyone wants to dislike. In the new Universal production “Fifty Shades of Grey,” both of the lead characters defy empathy — one likes to deliver punishment, and the other to receive it. Appropriately cast, this might well fit the zeitgeist.

» Even though three-hour movies seem to be working this year, that rule may not apply to comedy — a germane note, because you have a Judd Apatow production coming this year. Given the leisurely pace of his past two efforts, you might urge Judd to exert more self-discipline in the editing room, especially since the title of his next film is “Trainwreck.”

» We all understand Wall Street’s obsessive belief that blockbusters are the key to studio success, but since you’ve worked on “Battleship” and “47 Ronin,” you’ve also learned this axiom may work for bankers but not for studio executives. Bean counters don’t realize that most of history’s biggest blockbusters were inadvertent, not pre-ordained.

» When your greenlight committee weighs future film projects, we understand the importance of finding a key phrase to “sell” it, but the catch phrases can also be warning signs. When Universal’s ad department came up with “Welcome to the suck” to promote “Jarhead,” that surely was a signal of trouble.

As I said at the start, these “new rules” may be obvious to you. Some may even be discomfiting. But, as you start on your new duties, Donna, you may nonetheless choose to send them along to your corporate bosses at Comcast. During the years General Electric owned Universal, the senior GE executives never quite accepted the reality that making movies and TV shows involved a different discipline than making nuclear reactors — even though both can unexpectedly implode.

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  1. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Yes, Mr. Bart, it’s safe to say that millennials have lost too much innocence to stand for sympathetic subject matter. The rap/hip hop/reality show generation prefers social train wreck showbiz as a rule. Meanwhile, casts are made up of media puppets who live their lives on screen as if to be alive is to be a visual image. Real one percenters are too busy laughing at the zeitgeist to star in it. Problem is the one size fits all filmmaking mentality of focus group bean counters. The new age Hollywood film store has no senior section. So to appease mature folks, green-light more movies about time machines, living in the past and going back to the good old days. There’s a blockbuster in there somewhere that 70 million retiring baby boomers would like to see. Just for no other reason than to escape a world where the best in pop culture has come and gone and Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are famous. Now someone feel free to run with my idea so I can have a good reason to go back and see movies again.

    • LOL says:

      You’re just old, man. The future belongs to us young people; tattoos and all.

      • LOL says:

        Consider me told, sir.

      • TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

        More more thing, I’d say get off of my lawn, but the CA drought is running out of water for it…

      • TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

        Are you kidding me? I would not want to be young today if you gave me Bill Gates’ fortune. Thank G-d that I’m old enough to have enjoyed real creative and humanistic entertainment so that I can tune out modern poison pop culture. And the generation gap thing is a weak comeback since societies and civilizations age and degrade just like people. As for the future, you can have it. And I hope that you can figure out a way to beat climate change, otherwise you don’t stand a chance of growing old, kid.

  2. M. says:

    I wouldn’t worry about “Donna”, Mr.Berg. It seems like she managed to throw overboard both her co-chairman and 47 Ronin, and all in just one year…. The woman is going places.

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