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The astonishing box office success of Universal and Illumination’s The Super Movie Bros. has infused this year’s CinemaCon with a sense of optimism among cinema operators still struggling to recover fully from the pandemic.
So it was no surprise when Donna Langley, chair of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, received a resounding round of applause, plus whoops and hollers, when taking the stage Wednesday at CinemaCon, the annual gathering of theater owners in Las Vegas.
“I don’t know who’s whistling, but thanks,” said the well-respected executive when going off script momentarily.
“Each year, we come back to Vegas to showcase our slate, and we challenge ourselves to raise the bar with a breadth of offerings from our world class filmmaking partners. And as you’ll see this evening, we’ve done just that,” she continued.
Super Mario has done next-level business since opening over the Easter holiday, and is only days away from crossing the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office. On Tuesday, it crossed the $900 million mark in 21 days in release. It has earned $440 million domestically and $457.2 million overseas for a global cume of $901.2 million, by far the best showing of 2023.
Universal’s presentation underscored Langley’s ability to build a varied slate of films spanning all genres and budgets, from thriller pics (think Cocaine Bear) to horror hits (M3GAN) to romantic comedies (Ticket to Paradise) to blockbuster franchises including Fast & Furious. She’s also in business with many of Hollywood’s leading directors and producers. That includes Christopher Nolan, who is directing Oppenheimer for Universal and was on hand to share footage of the summer event pic.
“Right now I’m honored to bring to the stage a master storyteller, someone whose canon of iconic films were made to be experienced on the biggest screens possible,” said Langley. “There simply isn’t another filmmaker whose commitment to protecting and supporting theatrical is more steadfast. His name alone is reason enough for movie lovers to see whatever he creates next and what he has in store for you this summer is simply breathtaking.”
By far, Universal released more movies than any other studio during the pandemic, including titles from its specialty label Focus Features. That trend continues.
Langley’s appearance in Vegas came just days after NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell was fired by parent company Comcast for “inappropriate conduct with a woman” who works at the media and entertainment giant. Shell is no stranger to theater owners, having previously served in the job Langley now holds. Exhibitors at CinemaCon, like everyone else, were stunned by the news.
His abrupt departure prompted immediate speculation that Langley could continue to see her star rise at NBCU. She could find herself in the mix for the CEO job, or be promoted. The widely respected studio mogul has proven herself to be a savvy leader, in addition to having strong relationships with filmmakers.
When the pandemic struck, Langley and her team signed a historic deal with theater owners allowing movies to become available on premium VOD as quickly as 17 days after their release on the big screen depending on their opening weekend gross. A movie launching to $50 million or more will play exclusively in theaters for at least 30 days (Shell was a fierce advocate of shortening theatrical windows).
The pact has impacted the entire industry and has resulted in a dramatically shortened window for all titles.
PVOD has created a new important revenue stream for Universal, and has also shown that a movie can still do solid business in theaters after it hits PVOD. Also, Universal can send its movies to sister streamer Peacock relatively quickly.
While cinema circuits may not exactly be overjoyed by the dramatic shift, it has allowed Universal much more flexibility. And theater owners have come to rely on the steady supply of titles supplied by the studio.
Universal’s presentation included a parade of stars appearing in upcoming movies, including Vin Diesel (Fast X), Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake (Trolls Band Together) and Will Ferrell (Strays). There was also a special stunt presentation hosted by 87North, which has a first-look deal with Universal and is producing The Fall Guy. This led Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt took take the stage (Gosling stars in the movie about stunt performers).
Proclaimed Diesel, “Thank you, Donna Langley, for having the courage to release Fast 9 … when everyone else were sending their movies to streaming.”
Langley returned to the stage to close out the presentation before sharing footage from a rough cut of 2024 event pic Wicked, directed by Jon M. Chu (the sneak peek, which included commentary from Chu, wowed the audience). “We are going to bring you movies of all shapes and sizes,” said Langley. “That is something we are really proud of.”
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