It's an evolving process.
Sherry Lansing has had a groundbreaking career. After working in Hollywood as an actress, producer and then executive, she became the first woman to run a major movie studio, taking the helm at 20th Century Fox in 1980, at the age of 35. She later had a highly successful tenure as the CEO of Paramount Pictures with a string of hits, including Academy Award-winning pictures “Forrest Gump”, “Braveheart” and “Titanic.”
From the dramatic to the inspirational, Lansing has a number of stories to tell.
- Sherry Lansing Founder of The Sherry Lansing Foundation; former Chairman and CEO, Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group; President of Production, 20th Century Fox
Essential tips to succeed in the film industry
For me, I think the most important thing is the script. I always felt that if you didn’t have a good screenplay you couldn’t make a good movie — no matter how talented everybody involved in it was. And I always felt that good scripts had two things in common. First of all, when you read a good script, it’s not a passive experience, it invokes an emotional response. You are frightened or you laugh or you cry. You have to be involved emotionally. And second it has to have characters that you route for. They can be grey. They can be complicated. But you have to care about them. And so I look for those elements in the screenplays.
And then once you found the script that you loved, what was really important was to get the right elements, so if you didn’t have the right actor, or the right director, or the right producer, we would often wait. And sometimes we would put a script on the shelf until sometimes 6,7, 8,9 years until the right elements came together because I do believe a good script doesn’t die. It doesn’t lose its validity.
On collaborating in Hollywood
I think the secret to any successful producer or executive, both roles which I had, is a love of movies. I think that if you really care about the movies you are working on, if you really read every screenplay, look at every day of dailies — if the filmmakers know you are on their side, and that you care as much as they do, then it’s not us-them. It becomes we are all in this together.
All I wanted to do was be involved in the making of the movies. The worst thing to me, was that anyone would think of me as a suit — an executive or a corporate person. I wanted to be thought of as the producer still. I wanted to be involved in that. So for me, I have a great deal of respect for the producer, the actor, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, everyone who is involved in making the movie — the crew. I love making movies, that is why I got into this. I think they knew I really cared. Even though we would disagree about things, once you know that someone cares you’ll accept criticism and healthy differences in the point of view.
On the feminist backlash to Fatal Attraction
First of all, I was shocked when it got this reaction. It devastated me. I remember sitting in my office reading some the reviews where they said it was anti-feminist. I have to say, it really hurt me because I consider myself a feminist and I considered Glenn Close to be a strong female character. It was one career woman, not all career women. It was one career woman in my opinion, who had one married man too many. For me, what the movie was about was the line: ‘I won’t be ignored Dan.’ That line really resonates. I had seen too often, or heard about, men who would have a relationship with a woman, a one-night stand, and then never call her again. I thought that was inhumane. I though wait a minute, there’s another person on the other end of that bed. Just pick up the phone and say, ‘It was a nice night, but let’s be friends.’ Her reaction to I will not be ignored, was a voice standing up saying ‘I am a person.’ I believe that very few men will act like the Michael Douglas character did ever again because they’re afraid that there’s a Glenn Close on the other side.
On watching the final product for the first time
Pure joy. I can’t even begin to express the happiness that you have. When you look at a movie that you’ve given your heart and soul to, as an executive or producer, and when you know that it’s great, you are so happy — there is such joy. The next thing that kicks in, is your responsibility. Unfortunately, the movie business changed along the way. It used to be in the very early stages of my career that if I saw a film and it was great, I just went to bed and slept very well that night. I knew that we would release it in a couple of theaters and word of mouth would kick in and it would build every weekend and it would become a giant hit. But during my time in the movie business, it changed. Suddenly pictures were being released on thousands of screens. Suddenly, the marketing of a movie became as important as the movie and today maybe even more important than the movie itself.
So when you see Titanic, or Mission Impossible, or Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan — the next thing that kicks in your head as studio executive is, ‘We better be able to market it.’ Then you start going to work to cut television spots, to cut trailers, to cut material that will sell it the audience. You live for the next months, living in anxiety. That is the word I would use. You live in anxiety hoping you can deliver what the film deserves.
On the shift from movies to nonprofit work
All of the skill sets I had in the film industry, translate directly to the nonprofit world. It goes back to being a producer. All of the initiatives that our foundation is involved in come directly from my heart. I am involved in cancer research because my mother died of ovarian cancer. I am involved in education because I was a former math and english teacher. They start in your head and your heart, then you’ve got to find people to collaborate — people who care about the initiative as much as you do. Then you’ve got to go and raise money for the cause, and then you’ve got to get the public involved.
They are directly, to me, like making little movies. The skill set: the ability to bring people together to collaborate, that they come from your heart, and that you have to raise money for them is exactly the same as making a movie.
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