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Hollywood Pioneer Sherry Lansing Reflects on Her Groundbreaking Career

20 Mar, 2016 By: Stephanie Prange

There are disadvantages as well as advantages to being first, noted Sherry Lansing, the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio.

“I was at 35 the head of Fox, which wasn’t bad,” she said at DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group’s Canon Club event March 10 at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. “Yes, there was a lot of sexism. Yes, there were a lot of problems in doing the job, but I was going to put my head down, and I was going to work five times as hard as anybody else. I was going to concentrate on what I had to do, and I was going to ignore a lot of it, and ignoring was maybe not so good, maybe I should have spoken up more, but I was going to pick my battles. I was going to try to make great movies and concentrate on that.”

She related a story in which oil tycoon Marvin Davis, who had just taken over the studio, asked to see “Jerry Lansing,” obviously thinking the person in her position was a man.

“I came into the office because I knew he meant me,” Lansing said. “First he said, ‘Oh no, honey, I don’t want coffee,’ and then he said, ‘There’s been a mistake. I want Jerry Lansing.’ I said, ‘There is no Jerry Lansing. There is only Sherry Lansing, and she’s the one that’s running the studio.’ And he said, ‘A girl?’ And I said, ‘Yes, a girl.’”

Lansing also faced pressure from those rooting for her to succeed.

“I remember when I got the job there was a lot of outside pressure, you know being the first woman, and I remember going to a dinner given in my honor by Gloria Steinem, and there were 50 or 60 women and a woman stood up and she started screaming, and she said, ‘You represent all of us, and if you fail, you fail for all of us and so you have to succeed!’” Lansing said. “And then, God bless her, Marlo Thomas got up and said, ‘Geez, men don’t last in this job for more than a year.’”

But being first, Lansing said, also meant she could make her own way without being constrained by the style of those who came before her. She could create her own form of leadership.

“You could define yourself as you wanted,” she said. “There was no role model telling you what to do, so you could just be yourself.”

It also helped her get out of some tight spots.

“When I was head of Fox, I remember that I got in this huge argument with this male on the other end of the phone, and he started screaming and screaming and he just stopped and he said, ‘If you weren’t a woman, the things I would say to you,’” she said. “And I said, ‘Well, thank you. It’s good I’m a woman.’ So sometimes you can use it to your advantage.”

After her tenure at Fox and years of producing movies with partner Stanley Jaffe, Lansing was offered the top spot at Paramount Pictures. The reason she took it, she said, is “probably not the most feminist thing.” She met her husband, director William Friedkin, and his two children.

“I could be home for dinner,” she said. “I could have a more balanced life.”

Balance is key to happiness, she said.

“Work is a passion, but it’s not the only thing in your life,” she said. “You have to make choices in life. That is what I think will do you really well in your life is not to define yourself just by your work.”

Nevertheless, Lansing helped produce some of the most successful movies at Paramount Pictures during her tenure as chairman.

There was Forrest Gump in 1994, a film starring Tom Hanks as a mentally disadvantaged man that wasn’t the typical Hollywood blockbuster to green light.

“I was reading the script and somewhere three-quarters of the way through, I just started sobbing and sobbing, and I thought it was of the most beautiful stories I’d ever read and I thought it was my generation’s history,” she said, adding, jokingly, that her husband thought it was a terrible title.

Then came more Oscar winners, Braveheart (1995) and then Titanic (1997), a film that experienced the typical cost overruns characteristic of films shot on water.

“I had read the script for Titanic,” she said. “They had not started shooting, and I thought it was the most beautiful love story I had read. I was crying again. My husband thought it was a good title.”

The plot also had a feminist element that caught her imagination.

“I also thought it was a movie about female empowerment,” she said. “I thought that Rose was really an enlightened character.”

She also believed director James Cameron “would use water in a way that had never been done before.”

But when she had a chance to involve Paramount, she also thought that the special effects would be much more expensive than the $7 million budget.

“Here’s where being a producer is the best training,“ she said. “I had been a producer, and I knew how to read a budget. I remember looking at the budget and thinking, ‘This is crazy! They have $7 million dollars in for special effects. This doesn’t make sense.’”

She thought the worst the budget could go would be $130 million, and partner Fox, which was splitting the cost, said they would cap the budget there under the deal, thinking it would never go that high. Thus, Lansing made one of the best deals in movie history, noted moderator Stephen Galloway of The Hollywood Reporter.

“I kind of looked like a genius for doing that,” she said. The budget shot well past $130 million, but Paramount only had to pay $65 million.

What she doesn’t reflect so proudly on is her assessment of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” song that ran over the credits and won the Oscar for Best Original Song. She thought it was “corny” and “unnecessary.”

“I was completely wrong,” she said.

After a long career that spans being a teacher in inner city Los Angeles, an actress, a script reader, a producer and a studio head, her biggest piece of advice is, “Enjoy the process.”

“Enjoy the steps along the way,” she said. “Enjoy just getting up to bat because that’s what’s really worthy of everybody applauding. Don’t worry so much about the results 10 years from now or you are going to miss your whole life. Enjoy your kids when they are 2 years old, 7 years old. I’m enjoying mine now when they are 38. Don’t worry so much about the end game. It may change. It may switch in the middle.”

What you do is more important than results, she said.

“I have friend who has been in community theater all her life, never had a break, and is one of the happiest people I know,” she said. “Conversely, there are people at the top who are miserable.”

And she also says it’s important to treat others well, even in Hollywood.

“If you back-bite, I think ultimately it bites you back,” she said. “I’ve seen it time and time again. One of the advantages of getting older is you get to watch it happen to the person who was back-biting you. The karma came back to them. It does. Not always, but ultimately you have to look in the mirror and you have to live with yourself, and if I thought that the only way that I could become successful was stepping on other people and lying and cheating, I don’t want to be successful. I will be happy with much less if I can have my own value system, my own integrity and look myself in the mirror. I can’t tell you that life is always fair. That would be naïve. But you’ll feel a lot better, as you get older, you’ll feel a lot better.”

Lansing currently runs her foundation dedicated to funding and raising awareness for cancer research, health, public education and encore career opportunities.

The DEG created the forum Canon Club: Where Women in Home Entertainment Meet for women in home entertainment to come together to learn, share and engage. Deloitte hosted the March 10 event.

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