Universal's Donna Langley: 'Fifty Shades' Sequel Will Be "More of a Thriller"

"Failure is a great learning tool," the studio's chairman said at THR's annual Power Lawyers breakfast of the road to her recent box-office successes.
Donna Langley, Matthew Belloni

Fresh from the success of two worldwide hits in Fifty Shades of Grey and Furious 7, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley on Wednesday revealed her strategy for building franchises without the treasure trove of intellectually property enjoyed by other Hollywood studios.

Speaking during a keynote Q&A at The Hollywood Reporter's ninth annual Power Lawyers breakfast, Langley detailed the challenges of building strong film franchises from the ground up and then maintaining their momentum.

“Failure is a great learning tool,” she said during the Q&A with THR executive editor Matthew Belloni. But she noted Universal had honed its skills in turning "little engines that could" like The Bourne Identity and The Fast and the Furious into larger properties. Furious 7 has become the studio’s first movie to earn more than $1 billion worldwide and has passed that mark at the international box office alone, and this summer she has Pitch Perfect 2, Ted 2, Minions and Jurassic World set for release in the next three months. "Feeling confident with that as a strategy enabled us to look at things like Pitch Perfect or The Purge, things that aren’t traditional franchises, but they’re franchisable ideas we could grow."

Langley discussed the studio’s plans to continue the Fast and Furious franchise — with Furious 8 scheduled for 2017 — even following the death of Paul Walker. "He brought something very unique and very special to the franchise, but we've always tried to up the ante both with the casting and what the movies are about," Langley told the room of attorneys featured in THR's annual issue devoted to the top 100 entertainment lawyers. In regards to the record-breaking $325.8-million box office haul of Furious 7 in China, she said the studio goes into every project expecting the the capricious country would permit it to screen. "We go in assuming we’re going to do zero in China. So it's a nice surprise," she said of the strong showing there.

With the Fifty Shades sequel Fifty Shades Darker scheduled for February 2017, Langley spoke to reports of creative tensions on the first movie between the studio, author E.L. James and director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who will not return for the next installments. “For the record, the movie we ended up making is exactly the movie I wanted to make and that the studio wanted to make and that our director wanted to make,” she said. She described the second installment as "more of a thriller" and spoke to the recent hire of James' husband Niall Leonard to write the script: "He actually did a draft that wasn't credited on the first movie, and he did a really good job."

In terms of future franchises, she provided details on the planned "cinematic universe" of the studio's classic monsters, the first installment of which (The Mummy) was recently delayed nearly a year. "We're really looking to see if there's ways to create PG-13, more action than horror, like the early work of Steven Spielberg," she said. "The world of superheroes is black and white, the world of monsters is not. Sometimes you need evil to fight evil."

Earlier at the event, held at Spago in Beverly Hills and sponsored by Vacheron Constantin and City National Bank, newly hired Sony Pictures motion picture chairman Tom Rothman presented the studio's business affairs chief Andrew Gumpert with the Raising the Bar award. It's Gumpert who managed the studio's dealmaking in the wake of November's Sony hack and the release of confidential information on stars and executives alike — an experience he addressed with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people." He continued, "I really think it’s time for everyone to move on and get back to work."

Gumpert spoke to how he takes inspiration from his daughter, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. "She has a fight every day of her life," he said. "I know it's one of the reasons I'm able to handle the daily rigors of our business. It helps me keep my composure. When people say, ‘how do you do it,’ that’s my go-to thought. That’s my perspective.

"I’m also grateful to be doing something for a living about which I’m truly passionate," he continued. "Let’s admit it: we make movies for a living, and that's downright cool."

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