In the first five minutes of his conversation with Universal Film Entertainment Group Chairman Donna Langley today at SXSW, CNN’s Frank Pallotta got to the aorta of what anyone in Hollywood wants to know from the studio boss: what’s the situation on theatrical-day-and-date, the state of moviegoing, and whether the pandemic truly messed the business up.
Asked first about if she had any regrets over her decisions during the pandemic, specifically The Trolls World Tour initial day-and-date VOD move which sparked an uproar from exhibition before they were closed down for close to a year, Langley said, “I look back at all those decisions and I think they were right on.” This includes the annual push of F7 and the two-year push for Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru.
Now, Universal like its rivals has experimented with the theatrical-day-and-date model with its streaming service Peacock, i.e. pics like Boss Baby 2, Halloween Kills, Marry Me, and the upcoming Blumhouse movie Firestarter. However, Langley acknowledged that form of distribution came as a result of Covid-19 and “probably doesn’t work as well. It impacts the business model of the movie, probably there is a comfortable middle ground.”
“There’s some experimentation with Peacock going on,” said Langley about sending a movie like Marry Me to the Comcast streaming service. In sum, theatrical day-and-date isn’t a permanent strategy, in her mind.
Asked how she won Christopher Nolan over and landed his Oppenheimer in the wake of Warner Bros. upsetting the filmmaker with their 2021 slate theatrical-HBO Max plan, Langley explained that she had been talking with the filmmaker for some time, and that they had developed a movie in the past, The Prisoner.
On why Nolan is a good fit for Universal: “He makes films that are undeniably theatrical; that’s part of our strategy.”
“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, and I think to the end that’s what Hollywood is looking for,” she added.
At the same time, her philosophy when it comes to the movie business is that “one size doesn’t fit all” in regards to business models.
Part of the reason why some of these movies haven’t made a loud stomp on any streamer is because “global audiences haven’t been told by a big marketing campaign that something is coming, something is here to stay….that something is culturally important.”
She point to the success of the Oscar-winning $255M+ blockbuster Get Out, and how a theatrical launch for a small movie like that sent shockwaves around the world.
“I think people are going to go back to movies,” said Langley. “Streaming has made it more competitive for people’s time and attention. People will be more discerning and thoughtful about what they’ll spend their time on, but that has always been the case.”
Asked about the controversy about the Oscar telecast skipping over categories, the studio boss emphasized that the award show was important in “celebrating the craftsmanship” of filmmaking. “It gets lost in the business model of the show itself,” she said, “Length is an issue. I understand the conundrum. But filmmaking is a team sport. You can’t talk about a movie without celebrating all the craftsman who’ve worked on the movie.”
“It’s incumbent on the whole industry to figure it out,” added Langley.
If Langley learned anything about the motion picture industry during the pandemic, she said point blank: “That it loves a self-fulfilling prophesy. If I read another headline about the death of the movie business and theaters…” She eye-rolled. “Of course, they managed to find their way. Life finds a way to survive.”
The exec’s session ended today with an exclusive three minute clip of Jurassic World Dominion.
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