Donna Langley had a very big day on Wednesday at CinemaCon. Not only did she host Universal’s late-afternoon product presentation before thousands of theater owners at the Colisseum Theatre in Caesars Palace, she also was honored that evening when the Will Rogers Foundation named her Pioneer Of The Year. With colleagues Ron Meyer and Jeff Shell rooting her on, Langley’s night actually started with the act of magician Matt Franco, who pulled off some pretty amazing card tricks even by Vegas standards. Studio golden boy and horror film producer Jason Blum was singled out by the entertainer who performed some logic-defying card stunts with him as his stooge. Charlize Theron, star of U’s Huntsman franchise, then appeared to present Langley with the prestigious award that last year went to Fox’s Jim Gianopulos.
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“She found her home at Universal in 2001, where she has prided herself on shepherding a diverse slate of projects from musicals to action movies, from chick flicks to romcoms, from art films to tentpoles and everything in between,” Theron said in introducing Langley. “Donna finds the creative process magical. That’s what Donna does. She makes magic,” Theron continued, adding that she shouldn’t be celebrated just for her outstanding work and being a trailblazer, but also for being an outstanding person.
Then it was Langley’s turn. “We’ve all chosen to be part of the greatest business in the world,” she said. “And there is so much about it that is wonderful, but I think the greatest is the deep responsibility we feel about taking care of our own,” the very mission of the Will Rogers Foundation, which raised $1.5 million as a result of the evening. Langley said Gianopulos convinced her to accept when, sitting next to him at an AFI board meeting six months ago, he slipped her a piece of paper with one word written on it: pioneer. “I thought what is this?,” Langley said. “A sequel to The Revenant? Don’t tell me you need a co-financier because that movie is not going to do very well, but clearly I was wrong about that.”
Earlier in the day Langley presided over Universal’s CinemaCon presentation, a swift 90-minute show (see Deadline’s live blog coverage for the play-by-play) that chose not to dwell on , or gloat about the record-smashing year U had in 2015. The focus was, instead, on a few upcoming movies, using footage for each that she promised had not been seen anywhere else. Of the four live-action films showcased for the exhibitors, there seemed to be the most audible enthusiasm for the new Bourne edition, Jason Bourne. In terms of awards potential, Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the mega best seller The Girl On The Train (Oct 7) looks like it could rack up some nominations, particularly for star Emily Blunt, who has one of the juiciest roles for an actress in some time. “She really goes for it in this movie, ” Taylor told me when I ran into him standing by the elevators shortly before he took the stage to introduce the new trailer for the movie.
Blunt has been an Oscar nomination waiting to happen for some time and deserved one last year for Sicario, so it is nice to see she’s near the head of the line for next year. What was interesting though about the Universal presentation was simply that half of it was devoted to Chris Meledandri’s animation output from his Illumination Entertainment. As he ran through their projects, you could tell how much movies like Despicable Me (a new one comes in 2017) and The Minions have meant to the studio’s success in recent years. In fact he showed the crowd the hilarious first-ever new Minions short, Mower Madness, that seemed to be the closest thing I have seen in a long while to truly capturing the spirit of a Chuck Jones toon. Meledandri announced it would be playing with the studio’s July entry, The Secret Life Of Pets, for which the first ten minutes were shown, and if the next 90 minutes live up to it, Universal has another big winner. The crowd lapped it up.
Meledandri explained that coming out on July 1, three weeks after Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory is fortuitous timing because they will have three weeks of trailer play with Dory for exposure just before the opening of his film. The first 20 minutes of Illumination’s second film for 2016, the holiday entry Sing, was also shown and that one looks unique and original as well (it features animals in a singing competition), so much so that I can just about predict right now that the studio may be sitting on two movies that vying for the Best Animated Feature Oscar nominatoins, something that to date has eluded Meledandri and his talented team.
And speaking of Finding Dory, at its morning presentation, which mainly was all about showing Captain America: Civil War to the conventioneers, Disney threw in the first 27 minutes of Dory. Is this a new CinemaCon trend? Well according to the old show biz adage, “always leave ’em wanting more” and as far as the many toons on display this week here go, that has probably never been more true.
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