Dialogue: Sherry Lansing

The former studio executive on the evolution of Hollywood, opportunities for women and the one movie she wishes she'd made.

When Sherry Lansing entered the film industry in the late 1960s, the landscape for women in business was quite different than it is today: The ranks of corporate executives and studio heads were exclusively male, and positions available to the female persuasion were those of actresses, editors and readers. Lansing, of course, was instrumental in changing all that, when she became the first woman named president of 20th Century Fox in 1980. Lansing, who formally left the entertainment industry in 2005 after nearly four decades in the business, recently discussed her thoughts on Hollywood's past and future evolution with The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway.

The Hollywood Reporter: You left the industry at a time of real transition. How much had it changed since you began?
Sherry Lansing: It had changed in one huge way, and now, it looks like it's about to change again. When I entered it, everything was about the movie: If you made a good movie, there was word of mouth, and the movie found its audience. Marketing wasn't a big part of your day. Somewhere around the middle of my career at Paramount, I remember saying to (studio vice chairman) Rob Friedman, "Marketing is as important as the movie. If we don't get people in there in the first week, we're in trouble." And by the end of my career, I felt that marketing was perhaps even more important. If you could market a movie, even if it wasn't good, it would do a two-and-a-half multiple of its opening weekend; if it was really good, it would do four or five times its opening.

THR: You say the industry is about to change again?
Lansing: We're facing a revolution again, certainly in the distribution of films. People are seeing things on their cell phones now, on their computers -- and the question is: How does that affect the studio? How does it affect the windows (the gap between theatrical and ancillary release)? I don't have any of these answers. But (I do) know that the makers of the content will survive. Because whether you watch it on your cell phone or computer or on a big screen in theaters or on a flat screen in your house, people still are going to want to see movies. So, if you're the talent that makes the movies, you're going to be in great shape.

THR: Another revolution was the changing opportunities for women.
Lansing: That has changed a lot. If you had an event for women in the (industry), you would be lucky to get 40 people when I started. Now, you could fill Dodger Stadium. When I left the business, there were more women running studios than men.

THR: That's quite a contrast to when you were named president of Fox. Back then, the New York Times headlined it "Ex-model becomes head of Fox."
Lansing: Today, a woman taking over a high-pressure job in any business is not on the front page of the New York Times but in the business section. We have a woman running for president, a woman Speaker of the House. It's not a perfect world, but the glass is certainly more than half full, and it looks better every day. Our industry is becoming gender-blind because the talent to produce or write or run a studio isn't about gender.

THR: Do you think Hollywood is doing the right thing in embracing so much outside finance?
Lansing: It's good to spread the risk. (Lansing's colleague) Jonathan Dolgen was one of the first to begin these deals, and when we started, everyone made fun of us; now, everyone is copying a variation of the model. It gives you more money to make movies. But you have to let the outside financiers (have an option to finance) all your movies, or they will never come back again.

THR: Is there any film you wish you could have made but didn't?
Lansing: The movie that I cherished for years, that I can't wait to see, is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (set to be released in 2008 from Paramount). When I left the studio, I thought, "Please to God, take good care of this child." It was one of my favorite scripts.

THR: How greatly do you think Hollywood films impact society?
Lansing: Movies are the most powerful means of communication, and they affect the way we think and feel -- and they will affect social legislation. I was privileged enough to be associated with (1979's) "The China Syndrome," and you can go back to (1962's) "To Kill a Mockingbird" or (1965's) "The Pawnbroker" -- these movies had a tremendous effect on my life. They affect the way you think and feel. Look at (Paramount Vantage's) "An Inconvenient Truth" today.

THR: What about violence in the movies?
Lansing: Violence is part of life. We don't live in a PG-rated world, and we have a responsibility to show it in a reasonable way. But you can't glorify it and pretend people don't get killed. I have never been against a movie that was violent; sometimes you have to show it but in a responsible way. I don't believe in censorship. That has to come from parental guidance.

THR: How do you feel now that it has been almost two years since you stepped away from the movie business?
Lansing: There's a season for everything. I loved, loved, loved my time in the movie business, and I still go to all the movies and have the same friends. But I always wanted, when I turned 60, to give back. I always felt that if I was lucky enough to achieve all of my dreams -- which I was -- that what I really wanted to do was set up a foundation dedicated to health and education, in particular, cancer research. That's what I am doing. Every day is very, very filled. It is the third chapter and one of the happiest times of my life. I find it extraordinarily fulfilling. But it doesn't negate the past.
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