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Donna Langley: The Secret Weapon Behind Hollywood’s Biggest Box-Office Year Ever

THR's Women in Entertainment Executive of the Year is the understated, once vastly underestimated player behind Universal Pictures' $6.7 billion box office in 2015. What's her knack? The studio chairman churns out a diverse slate (in more ways than one) and draws on a reserve of steel from childhood: "If you can get through that, you can kind of get through anything."

This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Donna Langley’s husband is an acclaimed interior designer, but her office at Universal Pictures has not been transformed by him — or anyone else — into the opulent display of power and success that most studio chairmen consider their due. “Why bother?” she asks.

Nonetheless, her office in the corporate-beige-toned studio quarters on the Universal lot shows glimmers of a personal touch. The Florence Knoll marble-topped oval desk hints at a refined aesthetic. And in a nod to a love of nature dating back to her childhood on the Isle of Wight off the coast of Britain, there’s a hollow bit of log filled with greenery by the window as well as a small Asian fountain with water trickling through a piece of bamboo.

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Still, what hangs on the walls is mostly business: an autographed call sheet from Angelina Jolie Pitt’s Unbroken, a cartoon celebrating the $41.5 million opening weekend of the 2014 Kevin Hart-Ice Cube comedy Ride Along and a caricature drawn by Seth MacFarlane on which the Ted director scrawled, “We all wanna be like you!”

That sentiment hasn’t always been widely felt in Hollywood. Back when Langley was head of production at Universal, the job has been what she might call, with polite British understatement, “challenging.” The studio passed through a revolving door of owners, from Vivendi to GE to Comcast, while she reported to an array of bosses. (Ron Meyer, then-president and COO of Universal Studios, had pushed for her to be named Universal chairman in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2013 that she finally got the job.) Then there was the protracted run of costly misses, among them Land of the Lost (2009), Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), Battleship (2012), R.I.P.D. (2013) and 47 Ronin (2013).

“When you grow up knowing that you started off life somewhere else, it gives you this great sense of independence,” says Langley. “If you got through that, you can kind of get through anything.”

Inevitably, some asked whether Langley’s taste was commercial. Some questioned how she was keeping her job. Everyone wondered how Universal could be fixed.

With those desperate hours finally behind her, Langley initially — and characteristically — deflects a question about how she endured them. “I like it the way it is today,” she says, launching into an encomium on the virtues of Comcast ownership. (“They like our business. They understand our business.”) But pressed on the experience of struggling, day after day, to salvage troubled movies, Langley, 47, acknowledges, “Obviously, it felt horrible.”

It doesn’t feel horrible anymore. Universal had a record-smashing 2015 thanks to a diverse mix of hit films that included Furious 7, Jurassic World, Pitch Perfect 2, Trainwreck, Straight Outta Compton and Minions (a near-perfect blend of franchise movies for a studio that used to have nearly none) as well as midbudget originals. By November’s end, Uni’s global box-office revenue reached a record $6.7 billion, blowing past the $5.5 billion set by Fox in 2014. All of which makes Langley, right here, right now, the most successful studio chief in town, overseeing about 2,000 employees and controlling the IP that is helping to drive profit in merchandising (Minions toys for Christmas) and theme park revenue (a new ride based on the Furious movies). For the first time in recent memory, Universal is No. 1 in domestic market share, nearing 20 percent, according to Rentrak, well ahead (for now) of Disney, with 12.7 percent.

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But while Langley might know everybody in the business, she herself is not deeply known. She doesn’t hold court in a booth at The Grill or make herself especially visible on the Hollywood circuit. Coolly chic, with a trademark mane of dark curls and understated outfits from Tom Ford, Armani and Margiella, she often seems as smooth and opaque as that polished marble in her otherwise generic office. But no one ever made a hit movie or achieved blockbuster results by being ubiquitous at industry events.

Elizabeth Banks, who made her directorial debut with Pitch Perfect 2 at Langley’s urging, says the Universal chairman is not as staid as many people assume. “I love hanging out with her,” she says. “I don’t think she gets enough credit for being as fun as she is.” When Universal hosted a private afterparty for Pitch Perfect 2 at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant atop the downtown L.A. Ritz-Carlton, Banks says Langley helped close it down. Universal production president Peter Cramer, who has worked for Langley for 10 years, agrees. “She’s the best dancer in our creative group by far,” he says, adding that he’s witnessed Langley rock out with Rihanna and Meryl Streep.

Off the dance floor, Langley is known for maintaining a steady calm, even when angered. “She can communicate quite a lot with a look, but she’s very sparing in the use of that weapon,” says Cramer. “She knows when to get in, when to lay back, when to be forceful, when to be nurturing.”

Says Compton‘s Ice Cube: “Everybody knows that she’s running the show. She never has to scream or bark — she’ll just tell you directly.” (Earlier this year, at CinemaCon, he told theater owners, “Sorry, guys, some of you all don’t have balls as big as Donna Langley.”)

Langley with her former boss Stacey Snider at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast in 2014.

With films like Compton, Trainwreck and Pitch Perfect, Langley has shown an uncommon willingness to embrace diverse material in terms of race and gender and not to set her sights only on the usual audience demographic: young, white males. Producer Will Packer says Langley didn’t blink at casting the film Ride Along with two African-American leads, Hart and Ice Cube. “She made it very clear she didn’t want this to be a small urban film — urban in the way the industry sometimes compartmentalizes projects,” says Packer. “You have a lot of talk in this town about how things should be handled. She actually gave the film the support it needed financially.” The film grossed $155 million; a sequel is in the works for next year.

Trainwreck producer Judd Apatow also is a believer. He says Langley offers “the kind of helpful but respectful notes that make you want to fix things as opposed to ones that confuse you or shut you down emotionally.”

Notes David Kramer of UTA, which reps both Banks and Ice Cube: “She gets a lot of repeat business. To me, that sends a signal that she’s a great partner.”

Sitting in her office on a warm November afternoon, it’s clear that Langley is more comfortable talking with filmmakers than being interviewed about herself. Still, with her bosses at Comcast responding enthusiastically to the idea of a victory lap after a big year, she gives it her best shot.

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She’s been open before about having been adopted. Her biological mother was English and her father Egyptian. She used to pretend that her birth father was Omar Sharif but says she never felt a need to locate either of her birth parents. Her adoptive father spent most of his career designing radar systems for Great Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, while her adoptive mother was an activist who did volunteer work in foster care. Langley says her mother read about an adoption agency in London that specialized in placing children of mixed parentage and set out to meet the woman who ran it. That’s when she encountered her future daughter, then about a year old.

“When you grow up knowing that you started off life somewhere else, it gives you this great sense of independence,” says Langley. “If you got through that, you can kind of get through anything.”

Langley and her older brother and sister were raised as vegetarians from the time she was 4. If the home economics class assignment was to bake a Swiss roll sponge cake, hers was made with “whole-wheat flour and molasses and honey, and it was really embarrassing and usually a disaster. So that was character building.”

With ‘Furious 7’ star Vin Diesel (center) and NBCUniversal vice chairman Meyer — who calls Langley “the best rounded movie executive of anybody I have ever known” — in April.

When she was 7, the family moved from London to the Isle of Wight, a holiday destination for many Britons, off the coast in the English Channel. The schools were good, and it was a place where children could roam. “When I think back to my childhood, I just think of the word ‘freedom,’ ” she says. “In the summers we spent all day on the beach.” She was not particularly enamored of movies; instead, she developed a taste for nature that she now satisfies by having a second home in Ojai, Calif., a world away from Los Feliz, where she lives with her husband, Ramin Shamshiri, whom she met through mutual friends in L.A., and their two boys, ages 4 and 6. Despite a packed daily schedule visiting movie sets and meeting filmmakers, she and her spouse alternate school drop-offs and pickups.

After attending Kent College, majoring in art history, Langley moved to London, where some of her friends were working in media and entertainment. That world intrigued her, and in 1991 she and her closest friend, Tania Landau (now an exec producer working for Neal Moritz), decided to check out Los Angeles for three months. Nearly 25 years later, says Langley, “My mom is still waiting for me to come home.”

Langley and Landau rented a house, and Langley landed a hostess job at Roxbury, a Sunset Boulevard hotspot that had an exclusive VIP room. It was there that she and Landau met rising executive Michael De Luca, who had just relocated from New York to become president of production at New Line. “They were so funny and smart and sharp and sassy,” says De Luca, now producing the Fifty Shades of Grey movies through a deal at Universal. “You’re a sucker for those accents, too.” De Luca called Langley and Landau “the cuckoo Pigeon sisters,” an allusion to a pair of giggling siblings in The Odd Couple.

De Luca brought Langley to New Line as an assistant to executive Lynn Harris as the studio was coming off The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. When she moved to the story department and then into a junior executive job, De Luca was impressed. Even then, he says, she had “a no-bullshit attitude.” Because New Line, at that point, was not a first stop for shopping material, Langley had to hunt for emerging talent. The early training with De Luca “taught us how to find something, how to find a reason for it being,” says The Revenant producer Mary Parent, who also was a young executive at New Line with Langley. Even after De Luca became Langley’s boss, she and Landau felt comfortable enough to call and ask him to remove a dead possum from their garage. Black garbage bag in hand, New Line’s president of production complied.

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When Parent left New Line in 1997 for Universal, eventually becoming the studio’s co-president of production, she lured Langley over to the lot for a job as a senior vp. By 2005, Langley was president of production and for the next several years survived an array of bosses: Stacey Snider left in 2006 and was replaced by Marc Shmuger and David Linde, who lasted until 2009. It was then that Meyer made his first bid to install Langley as chairman. Everyone has misses, he reasoned, but he believed she had leadership skills. He also had noticed that Langley had championed one of the studio’s only hits of that hungry era, Mamma Mia!, which grossed $610 million.

Meyer went to New York to make his case with GE chairman Jeff Immelt and Jeff Zucker, then-CEO of NBCUniversal. They rejected the suggestion. (Neither man responded to a request for comment.) Instead they were intent on promoting Adam Fogelson, then head of marketing and distribution (and now chairman of fledgling studio STX Entertainment). Meyer — who calls Langley “the best rounded movie executive of anybody I have ever known” — left the meeting in anger. But Langley, for her part, says she never expected a promotion. “I hoped I got to keep my job, honestly, because those were really tough times,” she says. “What happens when you’re in the thick of doing triage every single day is you’re not able to think about strategy, about moving forward with any momentum.”

De Luca remembers a dinner with Langley around that time during which she discussed how Universal could cope with a lack of franchise material in an increasingly franchise-driven world. “You have to have something for everyone and not be afraid of hitting singles and doubles and not be afraid of originality,” De Luca recalls Langley philosophizing. He believes the studio’s current success results from the execution of that plan over a period of years.

Universal’s performance had started to improve markedly when Fogelson was abruptly ousted in September 2013, and Langley finally got promoted to chairman — though she was, once again, reporting to a new boss. Comcast — having seemed all but indifferent to the film business since it had bought NBCU in 2009 — was ready to install its own man at the head of the studio: Jeff Shell, a Comcast veteran with zero hands-on movie-making experience, was named chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment. While Langley is responsible for overseeing movies and working with filmmakers, it is Shell who has the power to greenlight.

Langley was tasked with giving her new superior a crash course in the film industry. “I was a total pain in the ass,” recalls Shell cheerfully. “Most of my questions were basic and very stupid. I started the job on Monday, and Donna said, ‘We have a preview tomorrow night.’ I said, ‘What’s a preview?’ “

There are those in the industry who point out that many of Universal’s 2015 hits — including Jurassic World and Furious 7 — were put into production when Fogelson was running the studio. Nonetheless, most, if not all, of the credit for several of this year’s more challenging successes goes to the former Pigeon sister. No one disputes that she is the person who wooed and won Fifty Shades of Grey‘s EL James when all of Hollywood was chasing after the British S&M author. “There were other interested studios headed by women,” James tells THR. “But given that Donna’s British, I knew that we could speak the same language — and that she could make a good cup of tea.”

To win James over, Langley yielded unprecedented control to the author, which surely was persuasive. But courtship still was critical. The studio put together a reel of Universal movies with strong female leads (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Pride & Prejudice). And surmising that James might be feeling overwhelmed by all the Hollywood attention, Langley played her ace card: “I said, ‘Can I make you a cup of tea?’ “

Another decision that was all Langley: putting up $30 million to make Straight Outta Compton. The project had been dropped by New Line, which balked at that budget for a hard-R racially charged movie about the world of gangsta rap. But when its producers brought it to Langley, she saw its crossover potential. “I told her there was no way to make this movie without controversy,” says Ice Cube, whose story (about the founding of N.W.A) is told in the film. “She was, like, ‘I know,’ which is what I wanted to hear. She was down to take whatever licks this movie would bring and didn’t squirm or get squeamish.”

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Obviously, Langley can’t take credit for rebooting the Fast & Furious franchise, but she was a key part of a team effort to pull Furious 7 through the tragic midproduction death of Paul Walker, leading to a franchise-best $1.5 billion gross worldwide. Production was halted; the Uni team took a pause to mourn, and then a strategy was devised for finishing the film with the use of challenging technological magic that included employing Walker’s brothers as stand-ins for the late star. The final product was marketed deftly and respectfully, and the film’s performance was surpassed only by the successful relaunch of another franchise: Jurassic World, which reached $1.7 billion at the box office.

“She’s indefatigable about trying to make a film the best it can possibly be,” says NBCU CEO Steve Burke. And Langley hasn’t shrunk from subject matter — notably Fifty Shades — that could rattle a company like NBCU parent Comcast. “I think Donna was worried that maybe since we’re a big, conservative, Philadelphia-based company that we might have problems with [certain] content,” says Burke. “But if we’re going to be in the motion picture business, we need to be all in and not screen every film in terms of what somebody might say about Comcast.”

As Langley lays plans for the next couple of years — another Bourne movie (with Matt Damon back in the lead), another Furious sequel (to be directed by Compton‘s F. Gary Gray), another Jurassic expe­dition, two more Fifty Shades films shooting back-to-back, along with The Purge 3 and Ouija 2 (from Jason Blum’s low-budget factory)and more Minions (from Chris Meledandri’s Illumination, the very model of a fiscally responsible, reliable hit machine) — the big question is the obvious one: Can her hand stay this hot? Hollywood execs dream of reaching this point — and then almost instantly succumb to dread about what will come next.

“I actually think I have really broad, really eclectic taste,” says Langley. “The accent tends to throw people off.”

Some industry insiders, naturally, whisper the studio already has slipped, pointing to the less-than-stellar fourth-quarter box office from Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea (which was, in the view of many, overly expensive at $30 million). Langley also is said to be on strained terms with Thomas Tull and his Legendary Pictures; a deal was crafted by Comcast in 2013, when the company had no financing partner (Tull’s $350 million and enthusiasm for event movies proved irresistible). But the first three movies dropped into Universal’s pipeline, Seventh Son, Blackhat and Crimson Peak — made without Uni financing — were bombs. “It’s a little early in the relationship to make any conclusions,” is all Burke will say about the partnership.

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There also are questions over how Langley and Shell will fare as a team as he gains experience in the movie business. Will Langley chafe over guidelines that Shell has drawn up for the studio’s slate — such as a $100 million cap on nonfranchise originals? Will it cause strain when he meets independently with major talent, as he recently did with Christopher Nolan?

Langley says Shell’s strategy is not at all confining and is more a refinement of an approach that existed. Even if it’s a bit more restrictive than that, a veteran producer who has known Langley for years believes she will gladly accommodate Shell’s wishes. “She really gets that the studio is owned by Comcast and that’s the culture she’s in,” he says. “She understands that Comcast has a very rigorous way of conducting things. She was also part of movies that were way over budget and lost a lot of money — Battleship, 47 Ronin, R.I.P.D. That group of movies was really painful. And she processed that it was not going to happen again on her watch.”

Of course, a year like 2015 will probably not happen again either, as Langley’s bosses are aware. “We are not looking at this year and saying, ‘Wow, we figured out the movie business,’ ” says Burke. “We’re not expecting to replicate it anytime soon or maybe ever.”

Seated in her office at Universal, Langley says she believes that under Comcast’s ownership, the team at the studio has finally had a chance to coalesce, enhancing its chances of success. And she takes care to be inclusive when she sums up the amazing year. “It’s a collabora­tion,” she says. “It’s a collaboration between the studio and all of its wonderful filmmakers. It’s a collaboration internally. It’s a collaboration with the town, with our agency partners. It’s all a collaboration and then, you know — no magic bullet. It’s some strategy, some timing and some luck.”