Chairman, Paramount Motion Pictures Group
Born: July 31, 1944, in Chicago, Illinois.
Education: Northwestern University, BS, 1966.
Family: Daughter of Norton and Margo L. Heimann; married William Friedkin (film director), 1991; children: two.
Career: Los Angeles Unified School District, 1966–1969, teacher; 1970–1973, worked variously as an actor, model, and script reader; MGM, 1973–1975, story editor; 1975–1977, chief story editor; 1977, vice president for creative affairs; Columbia Pictures, 1977–1980, senior vice president of production; 20th Century Fox Productions, 1980–1982, president; Jaffe-Lansing Productions, 1983–1992, producer; Paramount Communications, 1990–, president; Paramount Motion Pictures Group, 1992–, chairman.
Awards: Milestone Award, Producers Guild of America, 2000; All-America Advertising Award, Parade , 2003.
Address: Paramount Pictures Corporation, 5555 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90038-3197; http://www.paramount.com.
■ Sherry Lansing was one of the most financially successful, most enduring, and well-liked executives in Hollywood. She was hired in 1980 as the first woman president of a major U.S. film studio. Her intelligence, toughness, graciousness, and creative instincts propelled her to success as the chairman at Paramount Pictures. The Los Angeles Business Journal described Lansing as not "just the most powerful woman in Holly-wood—she's the most powerful woman in the history of the entertainment industry" (July 19, 1999).
Lansing, a self-described "nice Jewish girl," fell in love with the movies while growing up in Chicago. After earning a degree
in speech and theater from Northwestern University in 1966, she set out for Hollywood. Lansing spent three years as a high school teacher in the tough Watts district of Los Angeles and worked as a bit-part actress and commercial model before finding her niche in the entertainment industry. Discovering that her talents would be better used behind the scenes, Lansing got a job reading movie scripts for $5 per script. In 1972 Lansing landed her first full-time movie job as a story editor.
Lansing started her career at the bottom of the movie studio system, but she quickly advanced through the ranks. In 1975 she became chief story editor at MGM and in 1977 was promoted to vice president of creative affairs at MGM. Lansing then moved to Columbia Pictures, where she was the senior vice president of production. In 1980 in a controversial move 20th Century Fox hired Lansing, at age 35, to be the head of production. In this role instead of producing films Lansing watched over all the films produced by Fox and helped determine whether a proposal was worthy of financial backing. In the three years she stayed at Fox, Lansing released only two hit films, Porky's , and The Verdict . Lansing reportedly believed her superiors too often overrode her decisions and undermined her authority. In 1983 Lansing resigned her position at Fox and returned to producing films in an independent production company, Jaffe-Lansing Productions, formed with Stanley R. Jaffe, the producer of Kramer vs. Kramer . Lansing enjoyed the return to hands-on work, telling California Business magazine, "I enjoyed the time at Fox, but I was too removed from movie-making by administrative duties" (March 1987).
Until 1992 Lansing produced with Jaffe and on her own films such as Fatal Attraction and The Accused . Successful and happy, Lansing eschewed taking another executive position. In 1991 she married William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist , and family life made supervising film shoots all over the world less appealing. When Paramount Pictures, with which Jaffe-Lansing Productions had had long-term financing and distribution deals, in 1992 offered her the position of chairman, Lansing accepted.
As of 2004 Lansing was the most senior head of a major studio. Her longevity was credited to her ability to provide Paramount's parent company, Viacom, with consistent annual profits, which she had done from the beginning of her tenure. As chairman of Paramount Motion Pictures Group, Lansing reported until mid-2004 to the chairman of Viacom Entertainment Group, Jonathan Dolgen. Dolgen emphasized fiscal conservatism and profitability, which influenced Lansing to manage Paramount somewhat differently from other major studios. Whereas most studios were focusing on increasing market share, Lansing said her performance was judged on the profitability of that year's slate of movies. She was careful to match the appropriate budget to each script, which Lansing vigorously reviewed and edited before approving a project. Lansing and Dolgen actively pursued "flexible financing." Paramount often shared costs with other studios or partners, such as the actors involved, to minimize its cost. In the case of Titanic , Paramount capped its spending at $65 million and left Fox to fund the budget overruns.
Critics contended that Paramount was too conservative, hierarchical, and profit driven. They said Lansing's leadership produced bland, safe, formulaic movies and pointed to the studio's lack of Academy Awards in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lansing argued that she backed several movies with unusual concepts that were highly successful. Films like Forrest Gump, Braveheart , and The Truman Show were such hits that people did not remember what a risk they had been to produce. In early 2004, however, Lansing admitted that the Paramount business model needed to change and shifted to one that embraced more risk. Lansing increased film budgets and focused on attracting new directors and stars for high-profile films. In June 2004 Dolgen resigned from his position.
In a business legendary for big egos and high tempers, Sherry Lansing was called the "Queen of Cool." She was known for her graciousness and courtesy, for returning every phone call, and for calling everyone "honey." She was praised for her people skills—for her abilities both to reject projects graciously and to work with difficult bosses and coworkers. Said one producer who worked with Paramount, "People almost like getting a no from Sherry just to study her process" (January 27, 2003). Lansing also was tough when required, dressing down directors and anyone else who needed it.
Much of the attention Lansing received, at least early in her career, was due to the newsworthiness of a woman's making it in a man's world. She first experienced discrimination when she was promoted to the head of her department in 1975. Lansing was not paid as much as men in similar positions and was told she could not have a raise because she was single with no family to support. Even when she had worked her way up the ladder and was appointed the head of Fox in 1980, many in Hollywood regarded the move as a frivolous, "figurehead" one. As Lansing stated in 2002, "The New York Times front-page headline was 'Ex-Model Becomes Head of Fox'. They discounted that I had spent 15 years in the business" (July 15, 2002). Lansing proved her worth by succeeding in her position as a woman and not by fitting in to the male paradigm regarding her interactions or decisions. "Sherry's the first executive who succeeded by being a woman, not trying to be a guy," said one of Hollywood's top filmmakers in Variety . "She can be maternal, she can be sexy, she can use her femininity to be manipulative, but she's always, brilliantly, a woman" (November 8, 1999).
Lansing admitted that being a woman affected the kind of movies she made. She was one of the first executives in decades to make movies with strong woman characters, such as those in Fatal Attraction and The Accused . At Paramount, Lansing continued to support films with woman-oriented story lines and appeal, such as The First Wives Club and Double Jeopardy . Lansing's success in reaching not only audiences of women but also general audiences with films such as Mission: Impossible opened the door for other women executives, such as Amy Pascal, the chairman of Columbia Pictures, and Stacey Snider, the chairman of Universal Studios.
See also entries on Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Inc., Paramount Pictures Corporation, and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation in International Directory of Company Histories .
Bart, Peter, "Hollywood Overwhelmed by Gossip Glut: Rumors Often Target Teflon Warriors, Who Steadfastly Rise above It All," Daily Variety , January 27, 2003.
——, "There's Something about Sherry," Variety , November 8, 1999.
Bloom, David, "Solid as a Rock: Emphasis on Stability, Profitability, the Studio Mantra," Variety July 15, 2002.
Goff, T. J., "Racing with the Moon: Hollywood Prodigy Sherry Lansing Now Plies a Quieter Trade on Paramount's Back Lot," California Business , March 1987, pp. 11–12.
Swertlow, Frank, "From 'Nice Jewish Girl' to Hollywood Power Player," Los Angeles Business Journal , July 19, 1999, p. 48.
Waxman, Sharon, "A Studio Shifts from B Movies to A-List Talent (and Budgets)," New York Times , March 31, 2004.
—DeAnne L. Luck