Donna Langley Believes Gen Z Will Keep Going to Movie Theaters: ‘Meet Audiences Where They Are’

Donna Langley knows there is a lot of uncertainty in Hollywood’s future, but she believes the answer for Universal is simply to embrace the change and to keep “meeting audiences where they are.”

The chairman and chief content officer of NBCUniversal Studio Group sat down with veteran entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren at UCLA Law’s Entertainment Symposium on Friday to discuss the long-term vision for her studio, both with theatrical and its streaming service Peacock.

“Consumer behavior has shifted, and it is probably not coming back,” Langley noted. “One of the things we’ve focused on is that pre-pandemic, the majority of the moviegoing audience would see four or five films in theaters a year. That same number of people are now seeing one or two films.”

Langley attributed that to a mix of factors, including the disruption brought by COVID-19 and last year’s industry strikes, which heavily impacted the number of films in theaters over the past three years. But she also acknowledged that the audience is now used to being able to see films at home “faster than they did before,” in part because of changes to theatrical windowing through deals such as the landmark one made between Universal and AMC in 2020 during the pandemic.

That deal allowed Universal to put theatrical films on premium on-demand as early as 17 days after theatrical release if they had an opening weekend of less than $50 million, or after 31 days if the opening weekend was above $50 million. While Langley says that Universal is committed to releasing as many films as possible in theaters, that strategy is key to appealing to the widest range of customers possible by catering to the various ways that moviegoing habits have changed since the pandemic.

“We’re meeting the consumer where they are and with a lot of flexibility, giving them different ways to engage with our content,” Langley said, adding that Universal’s post-theatrical model that sees its films cycle to other streaming services after spending time on Peacock is part of that philosophy.

“Every time our films go on another streaming service, it puts them in front of a new set of eyes; which is ultimately really good for our creative partners and very good for our business,” the exec continued.

Under Langley’s leadership, Universal led all studios at the domestic box office last year, piloted by Illumination’s $1.36 billion hit “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” which, with $975 million, stands as the highest-grossing film to earn the Best Picture Oscar since “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” 20 years ago.

But another standout film on the slate was Blumhouse’s “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” a low-budget adaptation of the smash hit indie horror video game that grossed $291 million at the global box office despite being released simultaneously on Peacock. More than three-quarters of the film’s opening weekend audience was Gen Z, a demographic that has often been characterized as one that prefers YouTube and TikTok over movie theaters.

Langley, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s not like the ’90s where teens go to the mall and just see whatever movie is in theaters. It is appointment viewing. But you can’t pinpoint what genre they’re interested in,” she explained.

“They will show up for ‘Oppenheimer’ or ‘Barbie,’ or another film that we did last year, ‘M3GAN.’ [Gen Z] is genre agnostic. They are platform agnostic. But there has to be a social energy. There has to be something they can interact with and talk to others about,” Langley said.

Recently, Universal’s theatrical momentum hit a speed bump when the well-reviewed action romcom “The Fall Guy” kicked off the summer season with a flop, grossing just $170 million at the global box office against a $125 million-plus production budget before marketing costs.

But the studio should see a rebound in a few weeks with the fourth installment of Illumination’s flagship series “Despicable Me.” The studio is taking a bigger roll of the dice with “Twisters,” a revival of the ’90s Bill Paxton/Helen Hunt blockbuster that Universal is sending in with the hopes that a PG-13 disaster film led by “Anyone But You” breakout star Glen Powell will be able to stand out against major competition from the Marvel behemoth “Deadpool & Wolverine.”

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