The Universes Finally Converge

The first time I stepped onto a studio lot was life-changing for me.  After years of trolling in nondescript office buildings, and even for a period when I worked in the main building on a TV studio lot, nothing compared to the majesty and the sense of history I felt when I first stepped onto the 20th Century Fox lot on a spring day in 1986.  And when I learned that the lot was a fraction of its original size, the majority of which was now the home for an adjacent and highly overpriced mall, I was all the more awed.

But just as quickly, it was apparent that there was a distinct caste system in who were considered the true VIPs.  The TV group I was employed by, as well as the nascent pre-launch staff of what was then known as FBC (which we now call FOX), were scattered among several sets of  small trailers shoehorned in around soundstages, while the movie division was housed in the largest offices of the iconic William Fox building and the supersized structures that contained writers, producers and screening rooms.  They had direct access to the commissary and priority seating when reservations were required.  We were instructed to find our way to the cafeteria and eat on the patio.  They had long areas where town cars and limos would drop off executives and talent.  We had the “B” lot, an overworked group of valets who could never find a spot for anyone who arrived after 8 am (construction!) and a long trudge to our trailers, especially enjoyable on rainy days.

And this was in an era where the movie division was churning out slop like JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY and nearly bankrupted the whole place.

In the ensuing years, particularly after the studio focused on finding a way to actually make FBC work and our division became more integral, and as I was fortunate enough to rise through the ranks, I got to know many of the movie people, including my research and strategic peers.  We were often lumped into thinktank sessions at the chairman’s behest to try and find ways to better collaborate.  We were often able to share intel and insights, and would often be able to have lunches where their commissary priorities allowed me to actually enjoy waiter service.  Our bosses–well, let’s just say some got along and some clearly did not.

It’s a much different world now, particularly at companies where streaming is the priority.  Streaming services effectively make little distinction between movies and TV; they are simply different tiles.  Viewer consumption and resulting algorithms incorporate choices made from both.  So it was not surprising when this news dropped yesterday about the latest sign that historic walled gardens within such companies were coming down much like 1989 Berlin, per THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Alex Weprin:

NBCUniversal is getting a major C-suite shake-up.

Comcast president Mike Cavanagh is undertaking a significant executive reorganization of NBCUniversal, giving expanded responsibilities to executives Donna Langley, Mark Lazarus and Cesar Conde, and cutting the number of direct reports he deals with on a regular basis to four operational leaders.  Langley, the chair of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, will now oversee all content for the company, including for streaming and TV. Her new title will be chairman of the NBCUniversal studio group & chief content officer.

And as VARIETY’s Matt Donnelly observed, in Langley, NBCU gains tremendous street cred among creatives. all the more desirable at a time when its competitors are being castigated for elevating those more steeped in financial and transactional roles:

The veteran movie executive, with deep ties to Hollywood filmmakers and a knack for shepherding blockbusters to the screen, ascended to NBCUniversal’s content throne on Thursday, one of the big winners in a sweeping reorganization made by Comcast president Mike Cavanagh, who oversees NBCUniversal. 

What Langley offered was undeniable. Over more than a decade, she has routinely pushed Universal to the top of the film studio heap, and done so without controlling intellectual property like Star Wars or the Avengers. She’s managed to deliver and develop homegrown franchises – much credit goes to Langley for returning to the park with the rebooted “Jurassic World” and for keeping Vin Diesel behind the wheel of the “Fast and Furious” series well beyond the point where most competitors would have stalled.

Plus, Langley has earned the respect of the industry for her willingness to back edgier fare and emerging talent. She threw down for Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out,” and has made Universal the home of his follow-ups “Us” and “Nope.” Langley also made a bet that Elizabeth Banks could move beyond acting into producing and directing, giving her the “Pitch Perfect” series and the recent gonzo box office hit, “Cocaine Bear.” And, under Langley, comedy maestro Judd Apatow has become a brand onto himself, delivering arrested development comedies such as “Trainwreck” and “Knocked Up,” as well as milestone movies like “Bros.” And never forget, at the 2015 premiere of “Straight Outta Compton,” rapper Ice Cube called the executive “the sixth member of N.W.A.” Not that everything Langley did worked — the less said of “Cats,” for instance, the better.

Recently, Langley’s reputation for providing a supportive home for artists helped Universal lure Christopher Nolan away from his longtime home at Warner Bros. to make “Oppenheimer.” Studio executives don’t tend to be terribly popular among the artistic community, but Langley, whose velvet glove approach can disguise her fierce resolve, has managed to foster some of the strongest ties with filmmakers and writers in Hollywood.

I’ve made it quite clear the deep respect I have had for the now-departed Jeff Shell, and how much I believe his vision and dedication helped NBCU punch above its weight and did his best to drag Comcast into a more aggressive and global battleground far beyond its roots as a content provider.  Indeed, the fact that NBCU content is corporately connected to what is still one of the largest providers of cable and internet service gives it a tremendous advantage in its ability to be seen.  But as INDIE WIRE’s Tony Maglio and Brian Welk observed, Shell’s success was directly tied to Langley’s ability to identify content worthy of being desired:

(W)hile it was Shell who forged the pact with AMC and other theater chains that changed the PVOD game during the pandemic, it is Langley movies that brought in the new revenue stream’s $1 billion (over three years).

Langley and Universal currently boast the highest grossing movie of 2023 with Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” a franchise in the making after decades of Nintendo sitting on the sidelines. But since taking over as chairwoman of Universal Pictures in 2013, then being elevated to sole chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group since 2019, she’s gotten creative in building franchises without the aid of slam-dunk IP like a Marvel, DC, or Star Wars.

You can look at “Fast & Furious,” “Jurassic World,” “Pitch Perfect,” and “Fifty Shades of Gray” to name just a few. Chris Meledandri’s Illumination has produced a continued string of hits well before “Super Mario” and is now the animation juggernaut to beat at the box office. Universal’s work with Blumhouse has birthed “The Purge,” “Halloween” and a burgeoning “M3GAN” franchise. And this year Universal is poised to release 26 movies in theaters, more than any other studio.

But Langley has also been a champion for talent and specialty programming, including overseeing Focus Features and notching a Best Picture win for “Green Book” in 2019. She also was in charge when Spike Lee won his first Oscar for “BlacKkKlansman” and helped turn Peele into a household name after releasing “Get Out,” “Us,” and “Nope.”

So it’s pretty clear that she’s auspiced and more than ready for her close-up.  The open question is: for how long?  Having been part of smaller scale companies where worlds that were historically siloed came together when executives were dismissed, I can speak first-hand to how sometimes these moves are signals that something way bigger lies ahead.  Indeed, when Cavanagh, a longtime Comcast ally of the Roberts family was designated as Shell’s replacement, speculation abounded that this was a signal that he was just minding the store for a while.   Amidst all the news about Langley and her new subordinates, which also includes fellow British expat Frances Berwick being elevated to a larger role within the TV world, almost lost in translation was that, at least for the time being, Cavanagh was staying in place as the one they will ultimately answer to.

It is also no secret that Comcast, particularly under Shell, was pursuing alliances and perhaps mergers with other content companies facing similar existential issues as they to compete with tech-driven behemoths.  Both Warner Brothers Discovery and Paramount Global have appealing libraries and potential efficiencies.  The Roberts are still a family, and Cavanagh is ultimaely beholden to them.  And good as Langley is, she might be forced  to jockey for attention if the likes of, say, Channing Dungey, James Gunn, Brian Robbins or Chris McCarthy were to enter the competition.

But, at least for now, that’s down the road.  Right now, Langley’s top priority is to delve into the challenges facing NBCU and Peacock.  Step one may be finding a way to get what is out there on Peacock that’s actually worthy of being seen to be seen by more eyeballs.   With a lengthy strike looming, perhaps finding a way to take a broadcast window on quality works like POKER FACE, SHOOTING STARS or BEL AIR could be step one.  Step two might be finding ways to get franchise extensions, or, better yet, newly identified franchises into the mix on Peacock, particularly if they have global potential.

And right now, I honestly have to believe, anything, ANYTHING, is a better option than another season of LOPEZ VS. LOPEZ. 

That’s your first bar, Donna.  I suspect you’ll jump it before anyone finishes reading this musing.

Until next time…



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