For Hollywood, working to ensure that the diversity on the screen matches the diversity of the audience is simply the right way to do business. That was the message sent by Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley Tuesday in her opening keynote address at Variety’s Inclusion Summit focusing on diversity in the entertainment industry.
“We see reflecting the audience we make our movies for in our movies to be good business,” Langley said during her Q&A with Variety co-editor-in-chief Claudia Eller, held at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Langley pointed to Universal’s “Fast and Furious” franchise as a prime example. The first movie, released in 2001, was born out of star Vin Diesel’s desire to reflect the world of underground car racing in downtown Los Angeles. By definition, that meant having a diverse cast and story themes.
To date, six of the eight directors hired for the franchise have been people of color, Langley said. The most recent installment, 2015’s “Fast & Furious 7,” is the highest-grossing to date. “That’s obviously a really good story for us,” she said. “If it’s done authentically and integrated in a very organic way, it’s good business,” she said.
Langley pointed to the approach that the studio took with last year’s N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” as an example of embracing the dramatic potential of compelling stories regardless of origin.
As the development process on “Compton” advanced, “we evolved our thinking about the story that could have been easily pigeonholed to an urban story being one that was much more expansive than that,” she said.
Langley and her team took their cues from “Compton” director F. Gary Gray and producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.
“They came in and described to us a film about inequality, about injustice, about brotherhood, about family — the classic American dream. That was the movie we aspired to make,” she said. “They were never (focused on) making a movie that appealed simply to an urban audience — much like their music,” she said.
Langley noted that the first big marketing push for the movie came during CBS’ telecast of the 2015 Grammy Awards, with a video featuring Cube and Dre driving around Compton. “It was really charming and really powerful,” she said. “That was saying to everybody that we see this as a breakout movie. This is a movie for everybody.”
The exclusion of “Compton” from major Oscar nominations for the 2015 film crop was one of the catalysts for the “Oscars So White” protest that dominated headlines around this year’s ceremony. Langley said the situation helped accelerate the diversity conversation in the film biz, when Eller pressed Langley for her reaction to “Compton’s” Oscar snub.
“Hollywood is a reflection of a general climate that we live in,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that out of this renewed interest around these topics can come some opportunity for change.”
Langley offered insights into the inner workings of Universal’s development and greenlight process and detailed numerous diversity initiatives that the studio supports to help open doors to new talent. She emphasized that Universal’s focus is not about establishing a “quota system” but ensuring that the studio considers a wide and diverse pool of candidates for every job, whether it be on set or in the executive suites.
“You really do need hire the best person for the job,” she said. But as the industry’s focus on the scant progress for women and minorities has crystallized in recent years, Langley said she became aware of the need to take more proactive steps.
“As we were sitting down to look at candidates for open directing assignments, it wasn’t that we were ignoring certain people, it was that certain people were not represented on the lists we had,” she said.
Eller pressed Langley about the state of the diversity among the senior ranks of Universal Pictures execs. “Mostly,” Langley admitted when Eller asked if those who sit at Universal’s greenlight table are all white and all male. “We’d all like that to change,” Langley said.
Langley detailed Universal’s involvement with the Ghetto Film School as well as Sundance Institute’s new program for women filmmakers trying to make the leap from their first movies and AFI’s female-focused directing programs.
Universal has an internal program that offers a yearlong residency for six people who spend their time working on a screenplay and getting mentored by studio executives and talent on the lot. The studio is also implementing a new program designed to offer support and mentoring to diverse employees in lower-level positions in an effort to keep them rising through the ranks.
Particularly for youth, the exposure to the breadth of the entertainment industry is important.
“We’re teaching these students that there’s actually a business here, a vocation,” she said. Even if Ghetto Film School students don’t all go on to become directors, “they might be an editor or work in production. There are so many ways to make a living in the industry itself,” she said. “The hope is that five years from now or 10 years from now we’ve got a pool of people were shown a different path at an early age.”
The scope of Universal’s film production activity makes it conducive to supporting a wide range of storytelling from diverse backgrounds, Langley asserts. She cited as an example Focus Features’ interracial romance “Loving,” which is generating awards buzz.
“Our distribution organization is geared toward making all different types of movies at different price points for all different types of people,” she said. “It’s the beauty of having the flexibility within this really big system. We can support these great and diverse stories.”