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Donna Langley on Universal Success and the ‘Fate of the Movie Gods’

Universal keeps outdoing itself under Donna Langley’s watch.

Last year was its most profitable yet, boasting tentpole successes including “Despicable Me 3” and “The Fate of the Furious,” as well as such breakout hits as “Get Out” and “Girls Trip.” Its first quarter was its best ever, setting the momentum for the rest of 2017. All told, the studio crossed $5 billion worldwide at the box office, its second time ever, during a year in which box office was down industry wide.

Fittingly enough the Producers Guild of America will honor Langley, Universal’s chair since 2013, with its Milestone Award at its Jan. 20 ceremony.

Donna Langley is essentially the epitome of a 21st century studio executive,” Producers Guild awards chairs Donald De Line and Amy Pascal said when announcing the honor, the PGA’s highest accolade. “Not only has she built Universal into a powerhouse through her stewardship of tentpole event films, she’s built her studio into a home for smart, talented, passionate filmmakers — especially those who color outside the lines or don’t fit into Hollywood’s usual boxes.”

While deeply appreciative, Langley doesn’t take any success — or accolades — for granted. Having been at the studio since 2001, she knows what it’s like to be at the bottom of the totem pole.

“Before we had the success that we are currently having, the studio went through a few very bumpy years,” she says. “So a lot of my view of our success is shaped by those years of failure.”

The studio, which has weathered numerous ownership changes since Langley joined the company, also had a landmark year in 2015, when it became the first to field three films that topped $1 billion globally in a single year: “Furious 7,” “Jurassic World” and “Minions.” The “Fast & Furious” franchise alone has grossed more than $5 billion at the box office; Langley also presides over the lucrative “Bourne” series and the profitable “Pitch Perfect,” “Despicable Me” and “Jurassic” franchises.

“It’s very easy in our industry to gloss over the successful moments,” Langley says. “You have a movie that opens great on a weekend and then by Monday morning you are dealing with the next release, the next set of problems. It is important as an organization and as an individual to reflect on success, but reflect in a way that people really do understand the context of it.”

Take, for example, a movie that makes more than $1 billion at the box office, a matter of personal pride for Langley. “That’s no easy thing,” she says. “So let’s really think about: how did we get there? How did we accomplish that? What were the things that went into it?

“Celebrating success is a good thing,” she continues, but at the same time, she believes it’s important to temper any celebration with the awareness how fleeting success can be in a volatile industry. Try as you might to pinpoint tangible reasons why a certain movie succeeded, “sometimes it’s just really in the fate of the movie gods,” she says.

A native of the United Kingdom, Langley joined Universal as senior VP of production 17 years ago and subsequently served as president of production and co-chairman before her elevation to chairman, with Ron Meyer serving as NBCU vice chair. Prior to Universal, she served as senior VP of production for New Line Cinema.

As a leader, she tries to stay above the fray.

“You hire great people, and therefore that enables you to — for a large part — let them get on and do their jobs. So, not being too micro-managerial and not getting too caught up in the day-to-day minutia of things is certainly something I strive to bring to bear as a leader,” she says, crediting Meyer with this ability.

Langley is also heartened by the #MeToo movement. “For the first time in my career I’m seeing women really link arms and stand in solidarity with one another no matter if they are competitors. It’s a powerful thing and I really think it will bring about change.”

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