Summer 2014

No Easy Answers

As chairman of Universal Pictures, Donna Langley talks about the state of the industry and how Hollywood can do more to help women.

Donna Langley Universal Pictures1. Last year there were approximately 200 theatrical features directed by DGA members, and less than 20 of those were directed by women. Why aren’t there more directing jobs for women?

I don’t think there is a magic bullet answer. Inequality for women is prolific in many different businesses. Whatever the reason, we are not doing a good enough job getting to women early enough in their careers, supporting them, and enabling them to pursue careers in directing. I think the decision makers, and I will include myself in that, [need to do more]. There is a tendency to look at product produced by the studios as being predominantly male when we’re talking about tentpoles and big effects movies. We’re going after the male audience; we [need to] challenge ourselves to really examine whether or not you can make a big tentpole movie for women. We did it with our own Snow White and the Huntsman, so it can be done. But until those attitudes change, we’re not going to see a big change in the numbers.

2. Is there any reason women couldn’t direct tentpole and male-oriented action films?

There’s no reason whatsoever why they can’t direct those films. In my own experience, when we have an open directing assignment of any kind, not just the big films, I would say it is the exception, not the rule, that there is a woman in the group of directors that we are interviewing. I think that’s from the pool being so small. We have to look for the college or post-college group of women, and really get in there and mentor and support them in a way that hasn’t happened so far. But it’s not the norm that we’re rejecting women—I certainly have never been in a room where there’s been a conversation about women not being suited to direct a big movie. I think that women are uniquely suited to the job of directing and I’ve seen it firsthand. Right now at Universal, we’re making films with a number of female directors: Angelina Jolie [Unbroken], Sam Taylor-Johnson [Fifty Shades of Grey], Elizabeth Banks [Pitch Perfect 2]. I’m really not looking at them any differently than if it were a man directing the films.

3. From your perspective, what is the most important quality for a director to bring to the table?

What I look for in a director is a strong point of view, a clear vision, and an ability to multitask and make decisions on-the-fly. I was just on the set with Judd Apatow today, and it was actually his first morning of filming and each of his departments were still signing stuff in and getting their rhythm. Within the space of 25 minutes, he must have been asked 50 questions, and he was just rolling with it and handling it and giving everybody very succinct and clear answers. That really is what being a director is all about: being able to have that clear vision about what you want from the scene, while at the same time fielding questions from all these people. Those are the qualities I tend to look for.

4. How do you balance giving directors the space to create while keeping a firm hand on projects?

The key is communication. If there has been a lot of communication upfront about what the director’s vision is for the film, it’s our responsibility to agree with it, or not. The idea is to have enough collaboration and conversation so that before they get into directing the film, everybody is clear about what the expectations are. If those things are clear, it enables us, as a studio, to allow the directors to make the film they have the vision for—it really all boils down to that. My role in the process is to have enough of an understanding upfront so we can just let somebody fly. I have zero interest in micromanaging directors.

5. Have you worked with first-time directors?

I’ve done it a lot, and with mixed results. In general, I think it goes back to the studio’s responsibility to listen very carefully. These days, there are resources available at the studio to a director in the pre-preproduction phase. We ask a lot of questions and uncover a lot of detail about what the movie may or may not be. I find that to be quite a useful process and then, of course, it’s about surrounding them with the right crew, and the right producer, and the right support.

6. Can director-driven films with a singular vision fit into today’s studio system?

I think the singular director vision film falls into a couple of different categories. There’s the filmmaker who is usually financed independently and distributed by a major studio, whether that’s Paul Thomas Anderson or Woody Allen. Then there are directors who come to the studio [for funding] with a singular vision. They’ve written it, they’re producing it, and they’re saying ‘this is my movie.’ Joel and Ethan Coen come to mind. So there are the two different ways. But I think they are absolutely compatible with the studio, provided the business rationale is appropriate for all parties. Independent films need world-class marketing and distribution, and that’s where the studios come in. It’s nice for studios to have one or two of those films to balance out their slates. It’s great when you have a relationship with a filmmaker and they come to the table with a very specific vision for a piece of material.

7. How has the decline of the DVD business and the emergence of video-on-demand changed the traditional equation for making movies?

Over the last five years, the business model has changed radically. Without the revenues of the physical DVD business, the business rationale for each and every green-light division has been challenged. We like to green-light our films with the potential of not just breaking even, but actually making a 10 to 15 percent profit. So when you’re not having DVD profits factoring into that, it obviously puts pressure on the amount of money you can spend on the movie. However, we are seeing some very positive trends in VOD and electronic sell-through. It’s not enough yet to breathe that sigh of relief and think that it’s going to get us back up to the level of revenue that we saw from the DVD business, but it’s certainly going in a positive direction. And the decline of [DVD] is also not as rapid as it was five years ago; it seems to be plateauing. What we’re really looking for is consistency and lack of volatility so we can plan as an industry.

8. Do you think the industry is going to be making fewer movies in the future?

It’s hard to say. If you’re just looking at what the studios are fully financing and marketing and distributing, I think the answer might be yes. Although, the industry as a whole always finds a way to bring in money from somewhere to keep making the number of films that it can bear. The independent business right now is thriving; there’s money and product there, and as a studio you can benefit from independent financiers and independent products by having them use your marketing and distribution system and monetizing it that way. I think if the question is, ‘are the studios becoming more streamlined in terms of the types of movies they’re making,’ then conventional wisdom would say yes. But I think the business, as a whole, will continue to be fairly diversified.

9. Will we be watching movies in theaters in 10 years?

I really believe the theatrical cinematic experience is always replenishing itself. So even if you see a drop off in boys 18 to 35, because they’ve got so many other distractions, you’re always going to see a younger audience coming up and getting excited about having some independence and going to see a movie. And the older audience is really robust as well. Now, that is not to say that there isn’t a growing number of alternative ways to view content—that’s not going away. And it may challenge the theater experience in the short-term, but I don’t believe it will in the long-term.

10. What movies have inspired you?

When I was coming of age in England in the ’80s, there were a series of films that dealt head-on with issues that were impactful for me. There was Salvador, and a little known movie about apartheid in South Africa called A Dry White Season. And later, there was In the Name of the Father. It was a series of movies by filmmakers who were really interested in social issues, and I think that’s probably where I first thought how exciting moviemaking could be. Those movies were really powerful for me and I thought, ‘Boy, if you can entertain and have people understand the subject in a much broader sense, that would be a pretty great thing.’

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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