For Universal, Diversity is Key to Box Office Success

True to its name, Universal Pictures captured audiences in 2015 with a diverse slate boasting universal appeal.

“They had a well-rounded roster of films,” says media analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen and Co. “Something for everybody.”

Diversity not only characterizes Universal’s hit pics. It also reflects the cast and crew of many of its latest and greatest. As with any good cocktail, the mix landed just right. And without a single superhero cape. Universal’s franchises, multicultural cast, crew and marketing teams, female-centric stories and women both behind and in front of the camera strongly contrast to the strategies of old.

With box office revenue pushing the studio well past $6 billion worldwide, Universal’s landmark success adds support to the truism that diversity is more than PC — it’s profitable.

Even though diversity may be one of Hollywood’s hottest tickets, it is not the latest. “Since I’ve been here, it’s always been something that all our leaders talk about,” says Peter Cramer, Universal president of production, who arrived as a senior executive veep of production in 2005. “It’s always been part of the conversation here but it continues to be a push. As we observe the changing audiences, we want to be progressive in terms of the values of the movies we produce and the stories we tell.”

What else plays a part of that push?

Connecting to the national conversation is critical. “The stories that appeal to contemporary reality and that help us process what is happening in our culture, always have an added pull,” Cramer says.

Straight Outta Compton,” the seventh Universal pic to top $200 million worldwide this year, addresses issues of race and culture.

“That was certainly a factor in the heat the movie had,” Cramer says. “I don’t think we’d be doing our jobs if we were not attuned to what is going on in our culture and trying to tell stories that reflect that both thematically, in terms of what the characters may be going through, and in terms of the specific narratives of the films.”

“There is a real openness to finding diverse voices to help us tell the stories that we tell.”
Craig Robinson

Women, on and off screen, are another vital ingredient. The success of women behind the camera underscores the now-obvious appetite for femme-driven films, such as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” helmed by a female director, Sam Taylor-Johnson.

Pitch Perfect 2,” Elizabeth Banks’ directorial feature debut, brought Universal a record-breaking $69 million at opening weekend, outgrossing the domestic lifetime total of the franchise’s maiden voyage of $65 million. It represents the highest-grossing live-action musical opening and the second-highest PG-13 comedy opening ever. Banks returns to direct “Pitch Perfect 3,” set for July 2017.

“She’s awesome,” Cramer says. “I’m especially proud of our record this year behind the camera with women directors.”

With Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” and additional women-focused pics proving their fiscal worth, Universal has more planned. Last weekend saw the debut of drama “By the Sea,” which Angelina Jolie Pitt wrote, directed and stars in.

Next month, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler topline comedy “Sisters,” directed by Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”) and written by “Saturday Night Live” alum Paula Pell. Jolie Pitt’s previous directing gig, “Unbroken,” which opened late 2014, also contributed to Universal’s 2015 score card.

The studio’s strategy is not, however, to simply create a “diversity roster,” a concept Cramer vehemently rejects for scripts, cast and directors.

“We are looking for the person whose perspective is best suited to tell the story in the best possible way,” he says. “So diversity is one part of that conversation, but there are a whole host of other factors as well … their experience, their ‘take’ on the material, their story instincts, their casting instincts, their visual story.”

More relevant stories loom ahead.

For the past two years, Universal has been cultivating female and minority creatives through its Emerging Writers Fellowship. The highly selective program admitted only five from more than 500 applicants to each fellowship. The next round of applications opens online Nov. 30.

“There will never be a compromise on quality, but there is a real openness to finding diverse voices — of gender diversity and ethnic diversity — to help us tell the stories that we tell,” says Craig Robinson, executive veep, chief diversity officer, for the studio’s parent company, NBCUniversal.

The fellowship percolated up from Universal Picture’s Diversity Council, which brainstorms ways to advance diversity of content for multicultural audiences.

Headed by Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley, it comprises about 15 senior execs and staff, both gender and ethnically diverse.

Universal’s marketing division includes a multicultural team, in place for about five years, Robinson says.

Among the films they have worked on are such hits as “Furious 7,” the “Despicable Me” franchise and this year’s “Minions,” and 2014’s “Ride Along,” starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, which made $134 million domestic. The sequel “Ride Along 2” will be released in January.

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