Sherry Lansing's Groundbreaking Career Changed The Script For Women
Sherry Lansing was in for a surprise when she met her new boss, oil magnate Marvin Davis.
It was 1981 and Davis had just purchased 20th Century Fox (FOXA). Lansing was the studio’s president of production, the first woman to hold so lofty a post. When she stuck her head in to say hello, Davis replied:
“No, no honey, I don’t want any coffee.”
When she persisted and introduced herself, he said, no, “I want Jerry Lansing, the person who’s running the studio.”
She explained that she was the person running the studio, he said, “A girl?”
Yes, she replied, “a girl.”
How did she deal with the slight? “By denial,” Lansing said in a telephone interview with IBD. “It was a very different world, and I found that if I let all that noise bother me I couldn’t do my job. So what I did was deny it, put my head down and work twice as hard. I learned to pick my battles.
“If I had gone to human resources, I would have been fired. Today, you can bring down a network.
“I’m not saying tolerating that behavior was better. Just that I learned to tolerate.”
It was in large measure Lansing’s ability to drown out distractions and concentrate on the task at hand that propelled her to the top ranks in the entertainment business. Stephen Galloway, the executive features editor at the Hollywood Reporter, is the author of the newly published “Leading Lady: Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker.”
He was attracted to his subject, Galloway said, “because she was the single most important and influential woman of her time and an important role model.”
“Her breakthrough in becoming president of Fox was one of the those watermark moments for women,” he added. “I was very interested in how she had shifted in her career from model to actress to producer to studio executive, and finally out of the business into another career in philanthropy.”
A Role-Model Mom
Lansing’s career trajectory actually began while she was growing up in Chicago under the watchful eye of her role-model mom, Margot. Lansing was just 8 years old when her father died. She remembers two of the employees in the family’s small real estate business telling Margot, “Don’t worry. We’ll run the business and take care of you.”
Lansing remembers her mother’s reply: “No you won’t. You will teach me how to run the business and I will take care of my family.”
“She without a doubt was the biggest influence in my life,” Lansing says.
After graduating from college, Sherry moved to Los Angeles with her first husband and began a “career” as a high school teacher. She tolerated all the normal headaches of an educator — until, that is, a gang invaded the school, beat up one of her pupils, tied up teachers, and threw a Molotov cocktail into the principal’s office.
But there was a Plan B. Lansing went out on auditions for modeling and acting jobs even while she taught. It wasn’t easy, but she persevered through cattle calls and enjoyed a modicum of success:
A national shampoo commercial opposite a then-unknown Farrah Fawcett; TV guest spots (“Ironside,” “Dan August”), films (“Loving,” “Rio Lobo”) and even 10 episodes as a background partyer on Hugh Hefner’s jazz-infused series, “Playboy After Dark.” While in her career Lansing had moments of fending off sexual aggression, Hefner treated her and the other actors with respect, and made sure they were all well fed.
“It was a great lesson to see a boss making sure that everyone was treated like a human being,” Lansing told Galloway.
But while good Playboy victuals filled her stomach, there was still a void. “I was extraordinarily uncomfortable being an actress,” she said in the phone interview. “First of all, I had no talent. Worse than having no talent — because you could always learn to act — was the pain of pretending to be someone other than yourself. I found it very difficult.”
So she did a self-analysis. She had a good sense of story. An English major who always loved to read, she’d made suggestions on script changes when a problem arose on the set of “Loving.”
“I guess the suggestion was a good one,” she said, because they used it. Her producer on that film, Ray Wagner, saw her uncanny script judgment on the set. He offered her a job with his company as a part-time script reader, and Sherry jumped at it.
“I will be forever grateful to Ray,” she said. “I had a tiny office where I could read scripts. I felt I was home. I loved reading scripts. I love writing the synopsis. I loved giving my opinion. Those were the happiest days of my life.”
As important, it provided an alternate view of screenplays. Previously, all she’d been exposed to were shooting scripts, the supposedly finished product. Here she saw them in raw form and learned important lessons on how a screenplay was developed, from manuscript to screen.
She was so good that within six months Wagner hired her full time; 18 months she later was hired away by Leonard Stern Associates, a major TV producer; and in 1975 was named executive story editor at MGM.
Lansing immediately made changes in the way the system operates. Unlike her predecessors, she asked her subordinates for their opinions. Lansing concedes that “it’s not a technique to use when you feel uncomfortable as an executive.”
“This is who I am,” she explained. “I like to hear what other people have to say. Sometimes it colors my opinion. Sometimes it makes me feel stronger about what I’d thought. I love input.
“I’ve gone through systems with many bosses who rule by fear, who pit people against each other. I can’t exist in that kind of environment. I can only exist in an environment where there are no stupid ideas, and where everyone is comfortable and can say what they want.”
When her boss was hired at Columbia, he asked her to come with him and named her, in November 1977, his vice president of production. In this high-level post she oversaw such major films as “The China Syndrome” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
Such was her success that she fielded numerous offers from competitors, turning almost all of them down. In January 1980, she succumbed to an offer from Fox. Here she OK’d (greenlit in Hollywood parlance) “Quest for Fire,” “Cannonball Run,” “Zorro: The Gay Blade,” the Al Pacino vehicle “Author! Author!” and “The Verdict” — all the while dealing with temperamental, now-I’m-in-the-movie-now-I’m-not talent.
It was a difficult, politics-filled job, and Lansing decided that she wanted to go back to basics. So she partnered with producer Stanley Jaffe and opened an office (or, again in Hollywood-speak, set up a shingle) at Paramount.
Her new job as producer required her to be on-set virtually full time. Not only was she happy to be far from office politics, she was equally pleased because she was learning again: about camera angles and lenses and how scenes are set up.
Sadly, her joy was mitigated by early flops. At one point, believing he was helping, her friend Michael Ovitz, then a powerful agent, offered to set the pair up with a commercial Eddie Murphy comedy.
To Change The World
But that wasn’t the kind of movie Lansing wanted to make. She wanted to make films that would change the world, that led to discussions. “You have to be true to yourself,” she said. “If we failed at a movie we didn’t believe in, that would be awful. And we believed we had the thing you need in any career: resiliency.”
Resiliency won. Hit after hit followed: “Fatal Attraction,” “The Accused,” “Black Rain” and “School Ties.”
In March 1991, Jaffe left to become president of Paramount Communications, and in November of 1992 he hired his former partner as chair and CEO of Paramount Pictures. A wise choice, as it turned out. One of her first films: “Forrest Gump.”
She also had enough faith in her tastes that she got Paramount a half interest in “Titanic” while other studios were running away because of the film’s escalating cost overruns. “Titanic” became the second-highest grossing film of all time, earning almost $2.2 billion, and “Gump” was no slouch either, finishing with roughly $680 million in ticket sales.
Lansing kept her head on straight by weekly lunches with girlfriends and tried to see new releases at a local theater rather than at glamorous premieres.
But the business changed — and not for the better in her view. When she’d first started, it was the film that mattered. Now it was the marketing. Studios were looking for franchises and tent-pole movies, not adult fare. Lost in the shuffle were the kinds of movies she wanted to make.
She resigned in 2004 and decided to devote her energies to charities, particularly in finding a cure for cancer, from which her mother had died when she was just 63. In 2005, she started the Sherry Lansing Foundation to help find a cure. In addition, she was named a regent of the University of California, and sits on the board of a number of charities ranging from the American Red Cross to the Carter Center.
Her charitable activities have earned her numerous awards, most notably the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, presented to her by Tom Cruise at the 2007 Academy Awards.
First woman to head a Hollywood studio.
Overcame: resistance from industry unused to women bosses.
Lesson: If you build trust, you can win people over.
“As an executive, you have to do things that are financially responsible. But if the filmmakers see you as a suit, that you only care about money, they’re not going to trust you. I made it a point to let the producers, the directors, the actors know that I was on their side and that all I wanted to do was make good movies.”
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