Paramount Pictures exec Lansing revisits Hyde Park

By Kyle Holtan

Sherry Lansing, the chairman and CEO of Paramount Motion Picture Group, and a 1962 graduate of the Lab School, spoke in the Ida Noyes first floor library on Friday about the state of Hollywood movies.

Lansing, who in 1980 became the first woman to head a major studio, participated in a question-and-answer session with President Don Randel, but was quickly interrupted when the audience spontaneously began questioning Lansing, leaving Randel with the task of calling on questioners.

Lansing’s answers focused on two themes, the power of movies and the current reality of making them in a corporate atmosphere. She held an extended dialogue on the intensity of The Passion of the Christ, taking time to chide those in Hollywood who criticized the movie without seeing it. She recalled her childhood on the South Side, saying that films always held a magic for her, one that was inflamed upon seeing Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. She found suddenly that movies could also engage her intellectual interests and “could do more than sweep you away.” This power of film, she said, led to her early determination to make a life in the movies.

Lansing and her audience went into detail on the state of Hollywood today. “It’s not a good business at the moment,” she said. She recalled fondly the days of long runs in theaters when a movie could open slowly and gain an audience through word-of-mouth. Current financial wisdom in Hollywood says that because big “event” movies open nearly every week, a new release must catch on in its first weekend if it is to succeed.

“There’s a real drift,” Lansing said of the change. “I’m saddened by what’s happened.” Because of the new box-office dynamics, character-driven films have been overshadowed by what she called “big one-lines that you can sell, big high-concepts.” Lansing and Paramount were featured in the March 31 issue of The New York Times, Randel pointed out, for recently changing the studio’s slate to stress that type of movie. In contrast to her years of not focusing on the marketing of films, she said, “today, all I do is pay attention to marketing.”

Lansing expressed skepticism about home theaters and video-on-demand replacing movie theaters. “I’ve always thought that people want to get out,” she said. Referring to the movies’ biggest demographics, she added, “for sure teenagers do, for sure college kids do.”

As for the paucity of female directors, especially in Oscar nominations, Lansing related from her experience that female directors are turning projects down. She gave the example that Kimberly Peirce, A.B. ’90 and director of Boys Don’t Cry, has been offered projects by every studio but hasn’t found one to capture her attention.

Lansing contrasted the movie industry of the 1970s, often referred to as film’s second golden age, with the industry today. According to Lansing, in the age before conglomerates, such as Paramount’s parent Viacom, owned the studios, the majority of studio owners were filmmakers. In the less make-or-break commercial atmosphere, filmmakers were more adventurous. There was also less of a cult of celebrity, with no Entertainment Tonight. As Lansing put it, “Everything that everyone does is written about 20 times. That didn’t used to happen.”

On the positive side, Lansing claimed that her job as head of 20th Century Fox in the early 1980s was not more difficult because she was a woman. She pointed out that today the majority of studio heads are women. “The movie business has only one god,” she said, “and that god is talent—they care about whether or not you reached your audience.”

Lansing visited campus as a Marjorie Kovler Visiting Fellow. The Kovler fellowships bring leaders in the arts and public affairs to campus specifically to interact with students. Previous Kovler fellows include Robert Redford, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Betty Friedan, and, recently, Brent Staples of The New York Times.