NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley Addresses Depressed State of Theatrical Distribution During Cannes Film Festival

By Davide Abbatescianni | May 20, 2024 2:51 pm PDT
Donna Langley - Chief Content Officer, NBCUniversal at 2024 Cannes Film Festival

While Hollywood studio executives of various ilk are known to turn up at the Cannes Film Festival, it is historically rare for members of the C-suite to be spotted on the Croissette. Perhaps that’s changing. Last year, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav made a splash by throwing a 100th anniversary party for the studio at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, France. In 2024, Donna Langley, Chairman and Chief Content Officer of NBCUniversal Studio Group, was interviewed on 18 May during one of Kering’s Women In Motion talks.

The senior executive didn’t flinch when the first topic of discussion was the precarious current state of the theatrical business. “What we’re experiencing across the whole media landscape are trends that were really put in motion before the pandemic, but were accelerated,” she said. “So we’re seeing a shift in consumer behavior, which is driving a lot of rethinking and reshaping of our business.”

Without mincing words, Langley said, “Theatrically, the global marketplace is down about 20% from 2019 to now. And we don’t really think we’re going to recapture that. It’s okay. I think as an industry, we can withstand it.” This was not the pitch she made during CinemaCon in Las Vegas last April and may mark the first time a senior executive at a Hollywood studio has readily put forth the idea box office will not return to 2019 levels.

Langley then touched on the impact of the SAG-AFTRA strikes, which created a reduction of “the available volume in the marketplace,” adding how the audience loses its moviegoing habits when less ‘product’ is available. “Volume needs to come back with more, greater movies,” she underscored.

Last year was tremendously successful for NBCUniversal, thanks to hits such as “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Cocaine Bear,” “M3GAN,” “Fast & Furious X” and, of course, “Oppenheimer:” “Their success shows there are no rules in the movie business. We bought the film and it was a very competitive process, everyone wanted Nolan’s new film.”

Langley said how some feared the project – a lengthy historical drama on paper – would have been too expensive and a potential box office disaster. However, she was confident of the world class, master filmmaker at the helm as well as the script’s potentia, deeming it, “one of the best she’s ever read.” She praised its epic, yet deeply emotional and intimate tale fitting a big scale project. Thus, the team pinned their hopes on it. The great marketing and publicity campaign – along with the overwhelmingly positive response from Nolan’s fan base and beyond – are history.

Luckily enough, the cast leaving the red carpet during the London premiere in response to the strikes and other tense moments didn’t undermine the movie’s smashing success.

Recently promoted to Chief Content Officer, Langley showed great awareness of her role, being one of the most prominent leading women in the global audiovisual media sector. “I don’t look at my job in terms of power dynamics, but the responsibility of having all content reported up to me is really exciting, it’s a great opportunity,” she said. “Big media companies like ours have so many great assets including studios and talents. We’ve got amazing brands and franchises.”

She also spoke about the synergies between the film and television sides of the business. For Langley, optioning films for the theatrical marketplace and later sending them to streaming platforms – in her case, Peacock – remains the best choice, as she billed it “good for the film’s economics and for Peacock’s customer base.” She wasn’t asked about the studio’s recent release, “The Fall Guy,” heading to premium video on demand just 17-days after hitting movie theatres, as the talk took place within hours of that decision.

When it came to inclusivity, Langley expressed excitement for the new generation of storytellers, adding how more opportunities are emerging owing to the proliferation of streamers but also agreed more mentoring and support programs are needed. She mentioned as one of the challenges helping women to access job opportunities and grow within the industry, while letting them achieve a good work/life balance. She referenced NBC’s Global Talent Development & Inclusion initiative, whose resources could “make the difference” and whose impact is much more effective than that of a human resource department with no money.

And as for those aspiring industry professionals attending Cannes, Langley had some advice on how to break into the business. Though hyper-competitive, especially when it comes to acting, writing and directing, she believes mentoring plays a key role. “There are programs and initiatives and ways that you can participate depending on your experience level and your skill,” she explained. “I came up through the industry from an intern to an assistant. So I’m a believer in that it’s almost like an apprenticeship. Just get your foot in the door, and then work hard.”

J. Sperling Reich contributed to this report.

Davide Abbatescianni