“I’ll tell you a story that is sort of funny.”
Sherry Lansing is seated in her executive office on the Paramount Pictures lot. It is a sunlit room with bleached oak floors and comfortable sofas as well as pieces of African and pre-Columbian statuary.
Her mood on this July morning is upbeat. “Indecent Proposal,” a film Lansing produced, has grossed more than $100 million for the studio since the spring. The Tom Cruise legal thriller “The Firm” will soar far beyond that as one of the summer’s biggest hits. There is also great word-of-mouth circulating about a small Paramount film called “Searching for Bobby Fischer.”
There wasn’t always reason for such optimism at Paramount. Last November, when Lansing was tapped to replace Brandon Tartikoff as studio chief, there was so little product in the pipeline that Paramount could conceivably stop distributing films for a year, or slash the time it normally takes to edit and print movies and get them into theaters.
She had taken the job at the request of her former producing partner, Stanley R. Jaffe, who now heads Paramount’s parent corporation in New York. In begging her to take it, Jaffe’s sales pitch was that Paramount had potential blockbusters in the wings: sequels to “Star Trek,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Wayne’s World,” “The Naked Gun” and “The Addams Family.” Who wouldn’t want to run a studio with that slate?
And, so, Lansing laughs as she tells her story.
“He gave off this list of 10 titles. I said, ‘This isn’t going to be so bad. We’ve got all this stuff. You know, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a particularly hard deal.’ So, I took the job.
“About a week later, I called up Stanley and I said, ‘Stanley? You forgot to tell me something.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘You got titles--you ain’t got scripts!’
“He said, ‘You didn’t want me to tell you everything.’ ”
She had become head of a fabled movie studio that had given the world such classics as “The Ten Commandments” (both versions), “Sunset Boulevard,” “Shane,” “Stalag 17,” “Rear Window,” “Love Story,” “The Godfather,” “Chinatown” and the Indiana Jones trilogy. But it was now largely devoid of movies in the works.
“I mean, we didn’t have anything,” she recalled. “We didn’t have next Christmas’ movies. We hadn’t started shooting ‘The Firm.’ We didn’t have a movie for this summer that was shooting. We didn’t have anything for the fall. We didn’t have anything.
“Everyone wanted to make ‘Addams Family 2,’ but we didn’t have a script. We had ‘Wayne’s World 2,’ but we didn’t have a script. We had ‘Naked Gun 3,’ but (the Zucker brothers) hadn’t even agreed to do it.”
Tartikoff, the former chairman of NBC Entertainment, had difficulty getting films off the ground. His 15-month tenure had been shadowed from the beginning because his young daughter had suffered serious injuries in a 1991 auto accident. Tartikoff felt compelled to join his family in New Orleans, where the girl was undergoing rehabilitation.
“Brandon is the first to say that he was distracted,” Lansing said. “He was not available because of the personal tragedy in his life. He was not able to develop the scripts and put together a release schedule.”
Some of the product shortage actually predated Tartikoff’s arrival. Jaffe said that when he became president and chief operating officer of Paramount Communications Inc. in early 1991, “what there was, in my assessment, was not as good as it should be.”
Some believe that Tartikoff, who came from the world of television, never understood that the role of a studio boss was different from the head of a network. Network executives are buyers, they said, who choose from dozens of pilot shows that are presented to them. A studio boss is a seller who must persuade a limited pool of talent to come work for his studio.
In the 49-year-old Lansing, Paramount had a true insider. For more than two decades, she had come to know most of the powerful players in the business and counted the town’s top filmmakers and movie stars as her friends.
“She can get anybody on the phone,” said one agent, “whether it’s Redford, Pacino, De Niro, Dustin or Nicholson.”
The fact that she was a producer was a bonus to fellow producers. She grasped their problems, understood their needs. Conversely, she could instantly tell if someone was needlessly inflating the cost of a film.
She could point with pride that her own “Indecent Proposal” had become Paramount’s first $100-million grosser since “Wayne’s World” in early 1992.
But some wondered if Lansing was tough enough to run a studio. She is friendly and polite in marked contrast to the commonly held image of studio chiefs as driven, mercenary and hotheaded. More than one producer has marveled at how she can hand a filmmaker his head on a platter yet leave her office with dignity.
One insider commented: “She doesn’t have the creative edge that some executives have to put really hard projects into the pipeline.” But others say that she does know how to make controversial films that will sell--"The Accused” triggered a national debate about the rights of rape victims and “Fatal Attraction” touched nerves over its depiction of a crazed single career woman who tries to destroy a married couple.
Lansing can also hold her own with the mercurial Jaffe, who relishes a good showdown.
“If you aren’t prepared to fight for your place with me, you’re not going to stay in the room very long,” he said in an interview. “I like people to stand up.”
They had met at a small dinner party in the mid-1970s after someone had posed a mathematical problem and the guests tried to solve it. Lansing had once taught math in the Los Angeles schools and Jaffe loved mathematics.
“It isn’t often you go to a party in Beverly Hills, sit next to a beautiful woman, and be doing algebra problems,” Jaffe recalled. After that, they saw each other at social gatherings, but never dated.
As producers, they had been equal business partners.
Jaffe and Lansing preferred films about people and the human condition. Leave it to others to use hardware and pyrotechnics.
Their collaboration would bring forth not only “Fatal Attraction” (which grossed $154 million) and “The Accused” (featuring Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance), but such less successful films as “Racing With the Moon,” “First Born,” “Black Rain” and “School Ties,” which some observers said lacked a broad appeal.
“I don’t think ‘Wayne’s World’ would have been her choice,” said one industry insider. “That’s not her taste. I don’t think you’ll see ‘Terminator 3.’ ”
They admired the old school of producers, filmmakers who knew what it was like to stand in the rain at 3 o’clock in the morning doing a shoot, and not spend all their time on car phones and at trendy restaurants.
One of Lansing’s favorite photographs, which hangs on her office wall, is of the two of them caught unawares on the set of “Black Rain” in Japan. She and Jaffe are seated in exactly the same pose, both biting their fingernails and looking in the same direction at something happening on the set.
Although everyone knew they were close friends, their barbed exchanges could startle people. Richard Benjamin once dubbed them “The Bickersons.”
Lansing would stand up to Jaffe when she thought she was right. He liked that about her. “She’s smart. She has great taste. She fights for what she believes in,” he said.
She returned his loyalty. “He’s someone who you want to get in the trenches with,” she said. “You know that expression, he really protects your back? He’s there for you.
“We’re not clones of each other,” she remarked. “We’re very different and we love to fight it out. I said to somebody, ‘Now if you hear me calling him a jerk, that’s just the way it is.’ We respect each other. We’re friends. We like each other. We’ve been doing this for over 12 years. It’s a very comfortable relationship, but you can walk in and hear us screaming at each other.”
Lansing said one reason she took the studio job was because she missed their partnership. Today, she and Jaffe run the studio much like they ran their business. Although they live on opposite coasts, they speak numerous times each day by telephone.
Although she has wide latitude to make deals, Lansing said she would never greenlight a picture without Jaffe’s consultation.
“I do not wish to greenlight a movie with a ‘4' in front of it ($40 million) or a ‘2' in front of it or a ’10' in front of it that he hasn’t read,” Lansing said. “Why would I do that?”
Jaffe reads scripts that she asks him to, but he won’t tolerate people going around her. “Anybody who calls me to give me a script knows it’s going straight on to the California people. I don’t run the studio,” he said, quickly adding with a smile: “I didn’t say I don’t get involved. I said I don’t run it.”
Lansing had barely been in office when the first seismic rumble shook the lot. Scott Rudin was leaving Paramount and with him would go an important supplier of films.
In December, the 34-year-old producer of “The Addams Family,” among other movies, had announced he was departing for TriStar Pictures.
Paramount had given Rudin what was considered the best producer’s office on the lot, the remodeled offices of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer in the Cecil B. DeMille Building just inside the front gate.
The day came when Rudin, who was producing “The Firm,” got into a heated argument with Jaffe over whether the film could be ready in time for release at Christmas, 1992.
What had angered Jaffe, Rudin said, was that the producer had muscled Tartikoff into greenlighting a little film called “Searching for Bobby Fischer” while Rudin was dragging his feet on “The Firm.”
“I was angling to get the studio to make ‘Bobby Fischer,’ ” Rudin said. “So, what ended up happening, I got ‘Bobby Fischer’ set up right away and they didn’t get ‘The Firm’ for six months. So (Jaffe) thought I had engineered this whole thing, which was somewhat true.
“I said (to Jaffe), ‘I didn’t do anything that you wouldn’t have done as a producer, so don’t bust my chops! If everything I do is suspicious to you, I won’t work here anymore and you shouldn’t want me here anymore.’
“Then Stanley did a great thing,” Rudin recalled. According to the producer, John McTiernan told Jaffe he was interested in directing “The Firm” but only if he would not have to report to Rudin. At the time, McTiernan was seen as the key to getting Tom Cruise for the film, but Jaffe stuck with Rudin and they eventually landed Sydney Pollack as director. Cruise stayed with the project.
The battle over “The Firm” notwithstanding, Rudin said he felt frustrated working at Paramount. “You’d want to do something and you’d have to explain to 20 people why it was a good idea to do.”
Then Sherry Lansing came on board. Another studio chief might have given up on him, Rudin said, but Lansing amazed him by simply refusing to acknowledge that he was leaving.
“We signed the deal (with TriStar) . . . and Sherry Lansing, who lost the deal, was in my face five times a day. We talked a lot. We made a relationship. We basically found we could work together well. She said, ‘Wait a minute, there are not a lot of people I can talk to like I can talk to this guy, who understand how to get things together. I don’t want to lose him.’ ”
Other things impressed him about her.
One day, she asked Rudin if she could drop in at the first day’s readings on “Addams Family Values,” the sequel to the hit comedy. Rudin had never allowed an executive to be present at a first rehearsal, but this time relented. “She’s paying $50 million to make the thing,” he said. “I think she has the right to be there.”
At the reading, Lansing made suggestions on how certain scenes could work better. She suggested a couple of jokes be removed. “They weren’t so much off-color as they were kind of cruel, at the expense of some public figures,” Rudin recalled. “She said, ‘You don’t need this in “The Addams Family.” ’ She was also concerned about a piece of casting. But she was right about all of it.”
Rudin said Lansing also won high marks with him when she authorized $50,000 for a full-page newspaper ad congratulating screenwriter Paul Rudnick on his hit Off Broadway play “Jeffrey.” Rudin wanted to thank Rudnick for coming through in the clutch with last-minute rewrites on “Addams Family Values.”
Rudin is still headed for TriStar, but leaves the impression he would gladly stay if given the chance. “I’m hoping I never have to go there,” he said of TriStar.
He has kind words for Jaffe as well. “I love Stanley Jaffe now. He’s been fantastic to me. He’s mellowing to me.”
Lansing had a game plan for reviving Paramount.
She began by keeping the team intact. She believed Paramount had been ably served by Barry London, head of distribution; Arthur Cohen, head of marketing, and production chief John Goldwyn.
What Lansing needed urgently was to assemble a release schedule--not pie-in-the-sky stuff, but a schedule that showed these films had these writers, directors and actors attached to them and would be coming out at this time.
She called her production executives together and had them go through all their pending projects.
“OK,” she told one, “I want you to turn these six into movies. Here’s the date I want them ready by. Let me help you. What writers are you looking for? I know that writer. Let me call him.”
In no time, it seemed that barely a day went by without the Hollywood trades reporting that Paramount had purchased some script or made a deal with some filmmaker.
In office only a few days, Lansing paid $1.1 million for “Milk Money,” John Mattson’s script about children who pool their milk money to see a naked woman.
Joe Eszterhas (“Basic Instinct,” “Sliver”) walked away with $2.5 million based solely on a two-page outline for a yet-to-be-written screenplay called “Jade,” which the screenwriter described only as a story of “sexual identity” set in contemporary San Francisco. Lansing said she bought it because “we believed in the idea.”
Along with scripts, Paramount needed producers who could supply a steady stream of films. To that end, a deal was struck with Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, who found success at Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.
“Those two top-flight producers had worked for Spielberg for 10 years,” said one agent. “She went after them with a stunning deal--$1.5 million per picture and 5% of the gross.”
Baltimore Pictures’ Barry Levinson and Mark Johnson made a deal with Paramount. She made a deal in March with David V. Picker (“Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “The Jerk”), who previously held the presidencies at Paramount, United Artists and Columbia Pictures, and only this month concluded another deal with Gale Anne Hurd (“The Terminator,” “Aliens”).
In addition, she renewed the contracts of Lorne Michaels (“Wayne’s World,” “Coneheads”) and the team of Mace Neufeld and Robert Rehme (“The Hunt for Red October,” “Patriot Games”).
“Good producers help make good movies,” Lansing said.
Lansing had an advantage over Brandon Tartikoff: She had worked for years in the film industry.
From 1980 to 1983, she had served as president of production at 20th Century Fox--making headlines as the first woman to hold that position in the motion picture industry. She earned mixed reviews for her selection of film projects at Fox, but turned out hits such as “9 to 5" and “The Verdict.” Her stay was reportedly complicated by the number of Fox executives having a say in which films were produced and distributed.
At Fox, Lansing found herself in an all-boys’ club, where the men in charge had different sensibilities than she did and where one of her bosses called her “doll face.”
She found herself championing “Chariots of Fire” only to have male executives say they were bored by the film. (It won the Academy Award for best picture of 1981.) The final straw came when she had the studio pick up for distribution “The King of Comedy,” the Martin Scorsese film starring Robert De Niro. Lansing’s bosses did not support the film, releasing it in only six cities, where it was promptly buried. On that day, Lansing decided to leave the studio.
Before coming to Fox, she had been senior vice president at Columbia Pictures, where she was supervising executive on “The China Syndrome” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.”
She had not been born into the movie business like Jaffe. Her parents were involved in furniture manufacturing in Chicago and she attended the University of Chicago lab school for gifted high school students.
But from age 12, she wanted to be associated somehow with moviemaking. She would sit in the Hamilton and Jeffrey theaters in Chicago and watch the double features every weekend. She learned about love from Audrey Hepburn movies, and about social conscience from “The Pawnbroker.”
On the day she graduated with honors from Northwestern University in 1966 (she had majored in math, English and theater), she got into a car and headed to California with her then-husband, Michael Brownstein, who was an intern at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. She taught high school in Watts and East Los Angeles for 3 1/2 years. Tall and brunette, with striking bluish-green eyes, she had even worked as a model, doing commercials for Alberto-Culver.
The first time she stepped on a studio lot was when she took the MGM tour and saw Richard Chamberlain doing “Dr. Kildare.” She then got a job reading scripts for $5 an hour for an independent producer named Ray Wagner. She went on to become an executive story editor and worked in the same MGM building where she had taken the tour.
Today, Lansing is often asked how it felt to be a woman working in the male-dominated world of Hollywood in those years.
“The thing that was good about being a woman was there were no women,” she said. “You could be yourself. You could form your own style.”
The bad news was that she had no expectations. “I do not blame it on the business,” she noted. “I never thought that a woman could run a studio. . . . It wasn’t just that the world had a glass ceiling. It was myself.”
Lansing credits analysis for getting her over the hurdle. “I hadn’t been raised to want a career, but I desperately did want one. I’d been raised that I was only working to pass the time until I got married and had kids.”
Lansing said she has seen a remarkable change come over Hollywood since her days at Fox. Back then, her selection generated front-page headlines (as did Dawn Steel’s tenure as president of Columbia Pictures from 1987 to 1990). Now, she noted, Lisa Henson’s recent selection as head of production at Columbia Pictures was relegated to the business pages of most newspapers. “Women executives in this business were a novelty then,” Lansing said. “It’s now a fact. I don’t want to say it’s perfect, but I do believe we have come a long way.”
Divorced at 26, Lansing remained single for two decades. She met her current husband, director William Friedkin (“The French Connection,” “The Exorcist”) at a small dinner party after the 1991 Academy Awards. They were married three months later. She has a 10-year-old stepson, Jack.
Friedkin currently is directing “Blue Chips” for Paramount, a fact that has raised sensitive conflict-of-interest questions now that his wife is studio chief.
Lansing said that when she took the job, she went to Jaffe and Martin Davis, chief executive officer of Paramount Communications, and asked what she should do about Friedkin’s projects.
“Both Stanley and Marty said, ‘You’re bringing a great asset to this company. You’re bringing a director who won an Academy Award. . . . If he goes off and does a $100-million movie for some other company, we’ll really look like idiots, (like) “you can’t even get your husband to do a picture for us.” ’ So, Stanley said, ‘I’ll have only one account. You are not to read any material that he does. You are not to make any deals that he does.’ ”
Eyebrows were raised when Nick Nolte was paid $6.7 million to star in “Blue Chips.” Some in Hollywood wondered if Paramount was lavishing money on Nolte because Friedkin needed Nolte in his film. But Lansing defended the deal, saying Nolte’s previous film brought him $6.3 million and two days after Jaffe signed him for “Blue Chips,” Nolte received $7.5 million for his next project at another studio.
Earlier this year, Lansing was taken to task by some feminists who complained that Paramount makes “sexist and misogynist” movies. They cited two films Lansing herself had produced, “Fatal Attraction” and “Indecent Proposal,” as examples.
Under Lansing’s watch, the studio has released a secretary-from-hell genre movie called “The Temp” and the steamy (some say smarmy) Sharon Stone sex thriller “Sliver,” both of which were greenlighted by prior regimes.
Paramount’s billboards for “Indecent Proposal” irritated some feminists. The billboards showed the lower half of a woman’s body lying on a bed littered with currency.
“She claims to be this extraordinary feminist,” an official with the Women’s Advocacy Coalition told reporters, “and here she is in a position of power and look at the work she does.”
“I certainly approved it,” Lansing now says of the ad campaign. “It was provocative. I don’t mind provocative. I think the more people talk about your movie, the better off you are. I don’t want to do a movie just to provoke controversy, but if it raises real questions about your value system and what you think about, I think it’s good.
“To me, ‘The Accused’ changed the way people thought about rape,” she continued. “It really affected what you thought about the victim. I think that talk is very healthy. I think the talk that occurred after ‘Indecent Proposal,’ which is a totally different type of movie, is very healthy.”
Lansing said she was hurt and confused by the coalition’s criticism “because I think of myself as someone who supports feminist causes and always have.”
“To be honest with you, in my mind, the Demi Moore character is in control of her body and makes all the decisions,” she said. “She chooses to sleep with Robert Redford and she makes the decision. Woody Harrelson doesn’t do that. In fact, she’s the one who has the power. She is not a victim. To me, that is what feminism is all about.”
Lansing describes the first six months at the helm of Paramount as “trying times.” Nerves were frayed and lights burned long into the night in order to meet Lansing’s deadlines. She was not spared: After her studio job during the day, she would spend hours every night racing to complete “Indecent Proposal.”
The studio normally allowed 22 to 23 weeks for post-production--the time when films are edited, music is added and the soundtrack is mixed. But with each big film vital to the studio, directors were asked to meet tightened “posts.”
Adrian Lyne had barely 17 weeks of post-production on “Indecent Proposal.” There were four different teams of editors.
Phillip Noyce was working on “Sliver” almost until the Sharon Stone-William Baldwin suspense thriller was sent to theaters. Producer Bob Evans wound up hospitalized with what has been reported as a massive anxiety attack.
Sydney Pollack had 13 weeks for post-production on “The Firm.” Paramount threw in two editors, two assistant editors, three apprentices, a music editor and an assistant music editor and had three labs grind out the prints.
“He (had) 13 weeks from the day he finished the picture to the day it went into the movie theaters,” Jaffe said. “That’s crazy. I’m sorry. The fact that he was willing to try and pulled off what he pulled off is astounding.”
Steve Barron had only 10 weeks of post-production for “Coneheads"--four weeks for his director’s cut.
In all cases, Lansing said, she made it clear that she would push back the release dates if the directors felt the films would be harmed. None were.
“Right now, I feel we have room to breathe,” she said. “We can never relax. But right now, we are starting to have normal pre-productions and post-productions. We are planning movies for a year from Christmas.”
Lansing soon had other brush fires to douse.
One concerned Mike Myers, the “Saturday Night Live” comedian who created and co-starred in Paramount’s surprise 1992 hit “Wayne’s World.”
In December 1992, Myers submitted his first draft of the script for the sequel, which was based loosely on “Passport to Pimlico,” a 1949 British comedy. Sources say Myers was hoping Paramount would obtain the rights to the film.
But other sources say the studio became alarmed when it discovered that the draft was similar to the Oscar-nominated screenplay.
Myers was notified by Paramount in April that his script was unacceptable, and that left the studio with only two months before the scheduled start of shooting. The studio did not want a lengthy delay because it would jeopardize releasing the film this coming December.
Myers went back to work on a new script, but said he needed additional time to make revisions. “Mike was fighting to get the best script possible,” one source said. In May, he got married and went to Paris on his honeymoon.
The dispute became so heated at one point that the studio threatened Myers with a lawsuit. Sources say Lansing gave him a stern lecture about his responsibilities to the studio and his co-workers and told him to complete the script.
Ultimately, Paramount agreed to briefly push back the start date and there has been no trouble between the studio and Myers since. Lansing declined to comment.
Lansing’s second brush fire involved Tom Clancy, whose best-selling novels “The Hunt for Red October” and “Patriot Games” were turned into high-grossing films by Paramount producers Mace Neufeld and Robert Rehme.
Clancy, for reasons that remain obscure, did not want Phillip Noyce directing the next Harrison Ford film based on a Clancy book, “Clear and Present Danger.” Noyce had previously directed Ford in “Patriot Games.”
Clancy got on the phone with Lansing and said that he had problems with the script.
“We said, ‘We’d love to read your notes on the scripts,’ ” Lansing said. “But the real problem he had was he didn’t want Phillip Noyce to direct it. I thought, ‘Patriot Games’ was this fabulous movie, terrifically reviewed, got terrific box office. Then he said, ‘If Phil Noyce does the movie, I’m not going to be involved.’ I said, ‘Tom, Phil Noyce is going to do the movie. That’s what Harrison wants. That’s what Neufeld and Rehme want. Quite honestly, I can’t think of a reason to say no to them. He’s a terrific director.’ So, basically, I said, ‘Screw you’ and that was it.” Clancy’s “consulting rights” with Paramount ended as of a few weeks ago, the studio said.
Meanwhile, Lansing suspended production on the Eddie Murphy sequel “Beverly Hills Cop III” because “the plots were so absurd.”
“Now,” she said, “it is actually going to start shooting with a terrific script.” Producers Neufeld and Rehme will begin shooting later this fall.
The studio will be releasing an eclectic group of films in the next year. Among them will be “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?,” a film by director Lasse Hallstrom starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis about a young man who has a retarded brother, two sisters and a mother who weighs more than 300 pounds. Ridley Scott is producing “The Browning Version,” with Albert Finney in the lead, in a film directed by Mike Figgis and described as in the vein of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” And Robert Zemeckis will direct Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and Sally Field in “Forrest Gump,” a film described as a combination of “Zelig” and “Being There.”
Lansing said that Paramount now has a schedule for releasing films through Christmas, 1994. The studio, she said, is trying to get up to 20 to 25 films a year. Right now, it’s about 18 to 20.
Toward this end, Lansing said, she hopes to one day assemble the right producers, directors and writers on the lot who will then, in effect, become the studio.
“In my generation, it goes back to the old United Artists, which tried to do that,” she said. “You believe in these people. They aren’t going to strike a home run every time. Nobody does. But you know they are always going to make good movies. And you leave them there to make good movies.”