Sherry Lansing, a Hollywood pioneer who for three decades has been one of the most powerful figures in the movie business, plans to step down as chairwoman of Paramount Pictures when her contract expires at the end of next year.
According to a source familiar with the situation, Lansing will stay long enough to help choose her successor and to aid in the transition. But after 12 years in one of the most high-pressure jobs in the business, Lansing has made it known that she does not plan to seek another entertainment industry job.
Lansing’s decision comes as she finds herself having to prove to her new boss, Viacom Inc. co-President Tom Freston, that she can reverse the fortunes of the struggling studio.
Carl Folta, a spokesman for Viacom, which owns Paramount, declined to comment.
Lansing has been involved with some of the most acclaimed movies of her generation -- “The China Syndrome,” “Forrest Gump” and “The Accused.” But during her last three years at Paramount, she has presided over a box-office slump that has prompted questions about her future in the industry.
Paramount’s cold streak could continue this weekend, when its remake of “Alfie” hits theaters. Even Paramount executives say they expect the film, starring Jude Law, to do poorly.
People close to Lansing say that the unflappable executive -- a onetime actress and model who in 1980 became the first female president of production for a Hollywood studio -- has felt ambivalent about her job for some time. Lansing, they say, has grown weary of budget battles and red-carpet rituals.
In June, Lansing’s boss of 10 years, Viacom’s entertainment chief Jonathan Dolgen, abruptly resigned. Viacom Chief Executive Sumner Redstone had passed him over for a bigger role at the company, instead promoting Freston and CBS chief Leslie Moonves.
Lansing went to Dolgen’s office on the Paramount lot in tears, asking if she too should resign, sources said. He urged her not to, if only because she would risk losing millions of dollars if she left before her contract was up on Dec. 31, 2005.
A month later, Lansing turned 60 -- a birthday she had long told business associates she did not want to celebrate while still working at Paramount.
Lansing and Freston have had recent discussions about her future at the studio, said a source close to the matter. Lansing, the source said, expressed a desire to try something different, but Freston urged her to reconsider.
Lansing is the rare Hollywood player who has established a life and identity outside the business. She sits on a number of boards, including those of the regents of the University of California, the Rand Corp., the American Red Cross and the University of Chicago. She also is an active fundraiser for the Friends of Cancer Research and for the Carter Center, former President Carter’s human rights organization.
Some have speculated that Lansing, who is married to director William Friedkin, may start a nonprofit foundation and devote herself full time to public service or, possibly, to politics. A strong supporter and close friend of Sen. John F. Kerry, Lansing attended the Democratic Convention in July and is expected to be with Kerry in Boston on Tuesday to watch election returns.
“She cares about things other than the movie business -- she sees a bigger world,” Columbia Pictures chief Amy Pascal said of Lansing in a recent interview with The Times. “She’s been a pioneer ... making movies that nobody else would make. She always listened to her inner voice.”
Lansing’s expected departure would trigger yet another high-profile Hollywood succession drama. Walt Disney Co. is searching for a replacement for Chief Executive Michael Eisner, who has said he would resign when his contract expired in 2006.
Who will replace Lansing is unclear, in part because she is a Hollywood icon, unique in her longevity and stature. Redstone is believed to want an experienced film executive for the job.
In the short term, life at Paramount is not likely to change much. In recent months, Lansing has delegated many of her duties on the creative side to her production chief, Donald DeLine, whom she hired in December to replace her longtime deputy, John Goldwyn.
DeLine, former president of Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, is widely considered to be accessible and savvy. Last year, he produced one of Paramount’s only hits, “The Italian Job.”
Lansing has made other attempts to fix problems at Paramount. Months after ousting Goldwyn, she replaced Paramount’s veteran marketing chief Arthur Cohen with former MGM marketing President Gerry Rich.
Last December, Lansing made the rounds of Hollywood agencies to assure them that Paramount was eager to no longer “play it safe” and to be more talent-friendly.
Paramount has long been known as the most risk-averse studio in town. Dolgen pioneered what became an industrywide practice of co-financing films with partners to minimize losses. Paramount’s tightfisted ways made the studio profitable, even in the last three years, but it also limited its ability to reap the windfalls its rivals did with such franchises as “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
Freston has been outspoken about his desire to change Paramount’s culture. While he has supported Lansing, proclaiming that Paramount was entering “the Sherry Lansing era,” he has lamented Paramount’s “last-place” standing among its rivals, suggesting that the studio was out of touch with trends and was much too risk-averse.
At an investor conference in September, Freston took direct aim at one of Lansing’s recent movies. “Instead of spending $120 million on ‘The Stepford Wives,’ ” he said, “we could have made three pictures targeted at a younger audience that could be a lot more profitable.”
Lansing’s detractors say that in recent years her largely middle-of-the-road tastes have made Paramount seem old-fashioned. Although she has shepherded some hits -- such as “Mean Girls” and last year’s “School of Rock” -- critics say she has relied too heavily on remakes such as “Alfie,” which could seem dated for today’s audiences.
But Lansing’s team is banking on a turnaround beginning with the release of “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and “Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events,” due for release in the coming weeks.
Lansing, who grew up in Chicago, broke into the movie business in the late 1960s as an actress and model after having been a math teacher in Watts.
Her first executive job came in the mid-1970s, as a story editor at MGM. She quickly moved up the ladder, becoming the first woman to head production at a major studio at 20th Century Fox in 1980.
Lansing became partners with producer Stanley Jaffe in 1983, making such films as “Fatal Attraction” and “The Accused.” In 1992, soon after Jaffe was named president of Paramount Communications, he made Lansing studio chief. There she was a force behind such Oscar-winning blockbusters as “Titanic,” “Braveheart” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
Lansing’s elegant bearing and sharp intellect have made her a role model. She paved the way for future studio chiefs including Columbia’s Pascal, Universal Pictures Chairwoman Stacey Snider and the late Columbia Pictures head Dawn Steel.
Known for her passion for putting movies together, Lansing lately has been forced to deal with more mundane matters. Since Dolgen left, for example, she has met for the first time with executives at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Hollywood’s biggest customer for home video sales.
Lansing also has weekly meetings with the studio’s chief financial officer to discuss such issues as capital spending on the lot.
Apparently, all this has made her even more eager to begin the next chapter of her life.
A source close to Lansing said that Carter called her this fall and asked her to go with him to Zimbabwe. Lansing was frustrated that she had to say no.
Maybe next time she won’t have to.
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Position: Chairwoman and CEO, Paramount Pictures
Education: Bachelor’s in speech and theater, Northwestern University, 1966
1966-69: Public school math teacher in Watts.
1969-70: Appears in television commercials and two films, “Loving” and “Rio Lobo.”
1972-74: Story editor, Wagner International Production Co.
1974-75: Director of West Coast development for Wagner.
1975-77: Story editor, MGM.
1977: Vice president, creative affairs, MGM.
1977-80: Senior vice president, production, Columbia Pictures.
1980-82: Becomes the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio when she is named president of 20th Century Fox Productions.
1983-92: As partner in Jaffe-Lansing Productions develops “Fatal Attraction” and “The Accused.”
1992: Named chairwoman and CEO, Paramount Pictures.
1994: Viacom purchases Paramount. Lansing stays as studio head and scores a major hit with “Forrest Gump.”
1997: Paramount rakes in huge profit by sharing the costs of “Titanic,” the highest-grossing movie ever, with 20th Century Fox.
2002-present: Paramount suffers a string of flops, including “The Four Feathers,” “Narc,” “Timeline,” “Paycheck,” “The Stepford Wives,” “Against the Ropes” and “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.”
Source: Who’s Who, Baseline, Times research