Universal's Donna Langley on the 'Get Out' Phenomenon, Time's Up and the Future of Film

Donna Langley - Photographed by Miller Mobley - H 2018
Photographed by Miller Mobley

Langley, who is being honored at Saturday's PGA Awards, opens up about the proposed Disney-Fox merger and her approach to finding diverse stories: "I'm not looking to fill a quota, I'm looking for quality."

Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley has steered the studio ship during a tumultuous time for the film industry, with hits including Jordan Peele's Get Out (which grossed $254 million against a $4.5 million production budget) and Girls Trip, which was one of the few comedies that clicked in 2017, earning $139 million against a $19 million budget. And The Fate of the Furious — the eighth installment in the franchise — was the year's No. 3 film at the global box office ($1.236 billion). Langley, 49, who is involved in the new Time's Up initiative, is one of only two women currently running a Hollywood film studio, a gig she's held since 2013. Ahead of being honored with the Producers Guild of America's Milestone Award, she spoke about the changes coming in 2018 and the pressing issues facing the industry.

Was Get Out a big risk?

It wasn't a big risk financially because there was no way we could lose. It was a year before the election when we greenlighted it, and we had a real conversation about how it would be received in the marketplace and whether it would be alienating. Obviously, Jordan knew in his mind exactly what movie he was making. The picture wasn't completely clear to us, however, and we didn't have any idea it would become the phenomenon it was.

How do you go about finding these diverse stories?

I don't open a script and say, "OK, this is the one that hits the diversity angle." Like I always say, I'm not looking to fill a quota, I'm looking for quality. It's about putting familiar stories in the hands of original voices, and therefore it becomes something slightly different.

Have movies gotten easier to make, or harder?

What is increasingly under siege is how much money you spend to make a movie. The audience is becoming more discerning because they have other avenues to entertain themselves. The digital platforms are friction-free — you can just sit on the couch and watch a movie. We have to deliver movies that are worthy of being seen in a theater. We're not Disney — we don't have a long roster of giant global franchises. We certainly have some nice ones, but in order for us to do what we do, we have to make other kinds of movies that are targeting a very specific audience and that have the potential to break out if they're executed to a high degree. We've made a real business out of that kind of diversity.

What does it mean for the film industry that Disney is aggressively moving into the streaming space?

There's more opportunity. The potential of over-the-top platforms means movies that aren't considered worthy of a theatrical release — and all of the risk and financial outlay — can be made for a streaming service. That's not a bad thing.

What are your goals for 2018?

Oh gosh, nothing that I can tell you on the record. (Laughs.) But the landscape is shifting — just look at Disney's bid for Fox. As a company, we are very well positioned with our owners and with our management team to meet the challenges of the current climate and figure out the solution. That's certainly what we're all putting our heads together about as business leaders, with [Universal Filmed Entertainment Group chairman] Jeff Shell leading the charge.

How do you think the Disney-Fox union would change the landscape?

I have no idea because it's unclear how the [merged] company is going to run — who is going to be doing what, and what kinds of movies they're going to be making. Buying the rest of the Marvel universe, that seems like a good fit. But it's too early to tell. Consolidation potentially brings turmoil.



Ava DuVernay 
The filmmaker behind Selma and the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time will be honored with the PGA's Visionary Award.

Ryan Murphy
The prolific TV force behind American Crime Story and Feud will receive the Norman Lear Achievement Award.

Charles Roven
The David O. Selznick Achievement honor will go to the veteran producer, whose work includes Wonder Woman.

Get Out
The Stanley Kramer Award, focused on a project that raises social issues, will go to Jordan Peele's racial satire.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.