Universal Chairman Donna Langley Talks Diversity in Hollywood, Embracing China

Donna Langley - H 2015
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"The needle hasn't been moved at all in the last 20 or 30 years," the exec says of female representation in Hollywood.

Although Hollywood is certainly talking a lot more about gender representation onscreen, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley says there's still work to be done. 

Speaking Tuesday at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit, the studio chair said that she's having "many more conversations with many more kinds of people about inclusion and diversity than I ever have in my career, and I'm really encouraged by that," but acknowledges that those conversations haven't made much of an impact yet. "The needle hasn't been moved at all in the last 20 or 30 years," she says. 

As a woman atop a major studio, Langley has made efforts to greenlight movies that she herself would want to watch. She points to Fifty Shades of Grey and Amy Schumer's Trainwreck as examples of films that she took a bet on. 

Asked whether she agreed with The Hollywood Reporter's decision to do away with rankings for its annual Women in Entertainment issue, which honored her on the cover last year, Langley demurred from taking a strong position, saying that "people being recognized and acknowledged for the things that they've done is a good thing." 

Universal is coming off of an especially strong 2015, with hits that ranged from Furious 7 to Jurassic World to Trainwreck. Given the studio's string of successes last year, it is not surprising its 2016 box office hasn't been quite as strong. Its highest-grossing film so far this year is the animated Secret Life of Pets, which has taken in more than $858 million worldwide. 

Asked about her stellar 2015, Langley said that it went back to the efforts she's made to rebuild the studio around franchises like Jurassic World and The Fast and the Furious, as well as the move into animation and lower-budget horror franchises. Those efforts mixed with "a little bit of luck and some good headwinds and we ended up in 2015," she added. 

One challenge Universal and every other studio in Hollywood will continue to face is the shift in audiences away from linear television and theatergoing experiences to online viewing. Langley noted that time-shifted viewing has impacted the marketing of her movies. The exec said that Universal recently spent 60 percent of its marketing budget for the horror movie Unfriended on digital platforms, compared to the standard 12 percent digital buy. "It's something we're looking at, shifting our attention much more to digital platforms," she added. 

Another big change in the movie business is the presence of China. When queried about whether she sees the growth of the Chinese market and deep-pocketed new players as a threat or an opportunity, Langley said it isn't a threat. "China is very important to the movie industry today," she said, pointing to her efforts to release tentpoles like Furious 7 there. "The number of movie theaters and filmgoers that has increased in China year-over-year, the numbers are extraordinary."

Five years ago, Langley said, Universal didn't have boots on the ground in China and was distributing through a third party. Now it has its own distribution, marketing and consumer products. She noted that Furious 7 is the highest-grossing U.S. film in the country. "China is very important to us," she concluded. "We're also looking at opportunities to potentially co-produce with China. They have an amazing infrastructure of their own, and we're looking to see if there are ways that we can collaborate on local product."