Langley’s bet on ‘Oppenheimer’ may bring Oscars gold to Universal

March 8, 2024 - 12:39 PM
Cillian Murphy stars as J Robert Oppenheimer (Universal Pictures)

 “Oppenheimer” appears poised to dominate Sunday’s Academy Awards, validating Universal studio chief Donna Langley’s bet on the unconventional, three-hour-long period drama about the father of the atomic bomb.

Langley aggressively pursued the project, in part, for the chance to work with acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who had just severed his two-decade-long relationship with Warner Bros. Studios in a disagreement over its streaming video strategy.

The executive committed Universal’s full promotional resources to “Oppenheimer,” which would enjoy a 100-plus day exclusive run in movie theaters before being made available for home viewing.

“Donna’s an incredible collaborator, wonderful studio head to work for,” Nolan told Reuters. “I can’t speak highly enough about her incredible take on material, wonderful notes throughout, (and) an incredibly supportive effort from her whole team, which is second to none.”

“Oppenheimer” heads into the Oscars ceremony with a leading 13 nominations and is considered the favorite to win best picture after sweeping other major Hollywood awards. That would represent a departure from recent years when arthouse films such as “Nomadland” and “Parasite” took the top prize.

“Oppenheimer” already won big at the box office with $958 million in global ticket sales, helping Universal rank as the highest-grossing studio of 2023, according to Comscore’s estimate of worldwide box office revenue.

Universal declined to make Langley, 56, available for an interview.

Talent-friendly executive 

Several Hollywood sources describe Langley as a talent-friendly executive who is unafraid to take risks, which she demonstrated over her tenure as chairman of Comcast Corp’s CMCSA.O Universal Pictures, and later, as head of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, which includes DreamWorks Animation TV and Focus Features.

“There’s a fearlessness about her. There’s this unwavering willingness to take chances, to make big bets — and it’s always driven by her intelligence, her passion,” said Sarah Self, the co-head of the Motion Picture Literary Department at talent agency WME.

Langley views talent as Universal’s core intellectual property, backing comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out,” and supporting Judd Apatow’s rise as a producer of such comedies as “Trainwreck” and “Bridesmaids.”

The studio has become a magnet for young talent, including Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the directing duo behind A24’s Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” who signed a five-year exclusive deal.

The executive also has been credited with expanding or re-invigorating such lucrative franchises as “Fast & Furious” and “Jurassic Park.”

She sought a deal with low-budget horror shop Blumhouse to revive Universal Pictures’ long tradition of releasing monster movies. The collaboration has produced such box office hits as “Halloween” and “Five Nights at Freddy’s.”

“It was Donna that brought me in,” said Blumhouse CEO Jason Blum. “But it was more than just that. It was Donna who cleared the path for me at Universal to make low-budget movies.”

‘Creative leader’

The native of the United Kingdom has been recognized for her impact on the industry. In 2020, she was awarded a Dame of the British Empire in 2020, an honor that recognized her influence over popular culture.

“She is actually the business and creative leader of her generation in regards to creative content companies,” said Creative Artists Agency’s co-chairman and chief executive, Bryan Lourd.

During the height of the pandemic, Universal ended the 90-day exclusive release window movie theaters held for new releases when it sent “Trolls World Tour” directly into homes. The studio began making movies available for digital rental or purchase as soon as three weeks after the theatrical debut.

This strategy has generated more than $1 billion in ancillary revenue, which allowed the studio to justify greenlighting films, such best picture nominee “Belfast,” that otherwise would not be financially viable.

As rival Hollywood studios have trimmed their release slates, Universal and specialty studio Focus have announced a diverse portfolio of 19 domestic releases for 2024.

“They have really come out of the pandemic the most aggressively of any of the studios,” said Tim Richards, CEO of Europe’s Vue cinema chain.

In June 2023, Langley assumed a broader role as chairman of NBCUniversal’s studio group and as chief content officer, overseeing content strategy across the media company’s film and television studios.

Langley’s picks do not always pay off. One notable flop was an adaptation of the musical “Cats,” which was savaged for unrealistic-looking digital fur technology.

— Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski and Lisa Richwine;Additional reporting by Danielle Broadway in Los Angeles and Marie-Louise Gumuchian in London;Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler