When Christopher Nolan was shopping for a studio for “Oppenheimer,” his look at the creation of the atomic bomb, Donna Langley sprang into action. The Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman believes that Nolan, along with Steven Spielberg and Jordan Peele, is one of the few filmmakers whose name above the title demands that audience will pay attention. In an age of streaming and superheroes, that kind of branding has become a rare and valuable thing.
“He makes films that are undeniably theatrical,” Langley said of Nolan during a panel discussion at SXSW on Saturday. “We really focus and strive to create an environment for filmmakers where they can do their best work and minimize the friction and noise, and complement their film with an excellent distribution and marketing campaign.” Plus, “the script [for ‘Oppenheimer’] is phenomenal.”
Under Langley, Universal is one of the rare studios that mixes big event films such as the upcoming “Jurassic World: Dominion” and last year’s ninth “Fast & Furious” movie with smaller, more personal movies such as Peele’s upcoming horror film “Nope.” That’s partly because Langley’s taste is eclectic, and it’s also a strategy borne out of necessity. Unlike Disney or Warner Bros., Universal lacks an in-house comic book arm. “We don’t have IP,” Langley confessed to CNN’s Frank Pallotta, the moderator of the hour-long discussion.
Her job has only become more challenging during the pandemic. Not only is she doing battle at the box office with Disney and Warner Bros., Langley must also contend with streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon, to say nothing of the new wave of players such as Disney Plus, HBO Max and Peacock, which, like Universal, is owned by Comcast. But Langley noted that theatrical films have one advantage in floating above this sea of content. They demand a global rollout that has made them stand out from the ever-updating Netflix queue.
“A theatrical marketing campaign, that big global marketing campaign behind any movie, is what makes a movie matter,” Langley said. “We haven’t seen movies break through in streaming yet when they’re just solely streamed. They’re talked about, but there’s none of that cultural buzz that you see with a movie like ‘Get Out.'”
Langley came to SXSW at a time when the Oscars, the annual celebration of moviemaking, has made the controversial decision not to air the awards for certain below-the-line categories such as editing and score live during the telecast. That move has inspired criticism from the likes of James Cameron, Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Langley seemed to sympathize with their concerns, while acknowledging that the Oscars need to do something to bolster viewership.
“You have to garner ratings in order for [the Oscars] to continue and do well, and therefore length is an issue,” Langley said. “I really do understand the conundrum about needing to make the show as fun and entertaining as possible…But on the other hand, filmmaking, as Steven Spielberg always says, it’s a team sport…You can’t talk about just a movie without celebrating all the craftsman that participated in making the movie what it is.”
She added, “It’s incumbent on the whole industry to figure this one out.”
Langley’s talk concluded with a short clip from “Jurassic World: Dominion,” which followed Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard as they desperately tried to outrun a horde of velociraptors through crowded city streets. It’s an example of the kind of spectacle that Langley argues is required to get audiences to leave their homes for the pleasures of the multiplex.
“It’s up to us to make the good stuff,” she said.