Sherry Lansing, who became the first woman to run a major Hollywood studio 25 years ago, announced her retirement, effective at the end of 2005 when her contract with Paramount runs out. Lansing confirmed her departure, as reported Tuesday morning by the Los Angeles Times, with a statement late in the day, saying she’d chosen not to renew her contract but will stay long enough to find a successor. By that time, the 60-year-old Paramount chief said, ”I’ll have been in this job for 12 years and have had the opportunity and the privilege to work with the very best the entertainment industry has to offer. … But now is the time for new challenges. I am extremely excited about the months ahead and planning the next chapter in my life.”
A schoolteacher-turned-model and film actress (her credits include a small part in the 1970 John Wayne western Rio Lobo, Lansing became a story executive at MGM in the mid-1970s. She worked her way up to the production chief job at 20th Century Fox in 1980, where she oversaw such hits as Chariots of Fire. Starting in 1983, she spent a decade as a producer, as she and partner Stanley Jaffe produced such films as Fatal Attraction and The Accused. In 1992, Paramount brought her back into the executive suite, where she greenlit such movies as Forrest Gump, Braveheart, and Titanic, on which the studio partnered with Fox. During her tenure at Paramount, her colleagues running other studios have included women who followed her example, including Dawn Steel and Amy Pascal at Columbia and Stacey Snider at Universal. Since 1991, she’s been married to The Exorcist director William Friedkin.
Under Lansing, Paramount has gained a reputation, fair or not, as the industry’s most risk-averse studio. Its recent hits (School of Rock, Mean Girls) have been modest ones that have earned less than $120 million at the box office. Its slate has been heavy with remakes (The Stepford Wives, Alfie) that have only occasionally paid off (The Italian Job). The studio has been less than willing to swing for the fences with expensive epics common at other studios, unless it can find a production partner (as on Titanic). Its big movie franchises — Star Trek, Lara Croft, and the Jack Ryan movies — seem to be played out. On the other hand, Paramount is expecting big hits and potential franchises from this winter’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
But if Paramount parent company Viacom has been unhappy with her performance, there was no indication in statements Tuesday from top Viacom execs. ”Few have had as long and as successful a career in running a movie studio as Sherry Lansing,” said Viacom co-president Tom Freston. ”She has led Paramount on a remarkable ride with an impressive string of successes.” And Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone said, ”Sherry has been the heart and soul of Paramount Pictures for 12 years and a major contributor to the motion picture industry for more than three decades.”