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COVER STORY : Every Day Was High Noon : That's the way it seemed when Sherry Lansing took over rebuilding Paramount. Now that the tough stuff is out of the way, the really hard work starts. Hey, just another day in Hollywood.

August 22, 1993|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer.

"I'll tell you a story that is sort of funny."

Sherry Lansing is seated in her executive office on the Paramount Pictures lot. It is a sunlit room with bleached oak floors and comfortable sofas as well as pieces of African and pre-Columbian statuary.

Her mood on this July morning is upbeat. "Indecent Proposal," a film Lansing produced, has grossed more than $100 million for the studio since the spring. The Tom Cruise legal thriller "The Firm" will soar far beyond that as one of the summer's biggest hits. There is also great word-of-mouth circulating about a small Paramount film called "Searching for Bobby Fischer."

There wasn't always reason for such optimism at Paramount. Last November, when Lansing was tapped to replace Brandon Tartikoff as studio chief, there was so little product in the pipeline that Paramount could conceivably stop distributing films for a year, or slash the time it normally takes to edit and print movies and get them into theaters.

She had taken the job at the request of her former producing partner, Stanley R. Jaffe, who now heads Paramount's parent corporation in New York. In begging her to take it, Jaffe's sales pitch was that Paramount had potential blockbusters in the wings: sequels to "Star Trek," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Wayne's World," "The Naked Gun" and "The Addams Family." Who wouldn't want to run a studio with that slate?

And, so, Lansing laughs as she tells her story.

"He gave off this list of 10 titles. I said, 'This isn't going to be so bad. We've got all this stuff. You know, it doesn't look like it's going to be a particularly hard deal.' So, I took the job.

"About a week later, I called up Stanley and I said, 'Stanley? You forgot to tell me something.' He said, 'What?' I said, 'You got titles--you ain't got scripts!'

"He said, 'You didn't want me to tell you everything.' "

She had become head of a fabled movie studio that had given the world such classics as "The Ten Commandments" (both versions), "Sunset Boulevard," "Shane," "Stalag 17," "Rear Window," "Love Story," "The Godfather," "Chinatown" and the Indiana Jones trilogy. But it was now largely devoid of movies in the works.

"I mean, we didn't have anything," she recalled. "We didn't have next Christmas' movies. We hadn't started shooting 'The Firm.' We didn't have a movie for this summer that was shooting. We didn't have anything for the fall. We didn't have anything.

"Everyone wanted to make 'Addams Family 2,' but we didn't have a script. We had 'Wayne's World 2,' but we didn't have a script. We had 'Naked Gun 3,' but (the Zucker brothers) hadn't even agreed to do it."

Tartikoff, the former chairman of NBC Entertainment, had difficulty getting films off the ground. His 15-month tenure had been shadowed from the beginning because his young daughter had suffered serious injuries in a 1991 auto accident. Tartikoff felt compelled to join his family in New Orleans, where the girl was undergoing rehabilitation.

"Brandon is the first to say that he was distracted," Lansing said. "He was not available because of the personal tragedy in his life. He was not able to develop the scripts and put together a release schedule."

Some of the product shortage actually predated Tartikoff's arrival. Jaffe said that when he became president and chief operating officer of Paramount Communications Inc. in early 1991, "what there was, in my assessment, was not as good as it should be."

Some believe that Tartikoff, who came from the world of television, never understood that the role of a studio boss was different from the head of a network. Network executives are buyers, they said, who choose from dozens of pilot shows that are presented to them. A studio boss is a seller who must persuade a limited pool of talent to come work for his studio.

In the 49-year-old Lansing, Paramount had a true insider. For more than two decades, she had come to know most of the powerful players in the business and counted the town's top filmmakers and movie stars as her friends.

"She can get anybody on the phone," said one agent, "whether it's Redford, Pacino, De Niro, Dustin or Nicholson."

The fact that she was a producer was a bonus to fellow producers. She grasped their problems, understood their needs. Conversely, she could instantly tell if someone was needlessly inflating the cost of a film.

She could point with pride that her own "Indecent Proposal" had become Paramount's first $100-million grosser since "Wayne's World" in early 1992.

But some wondered if Lansing was tough enough to run a studio. She is friendly and polite in marked contrast to the commonly held image of studio chiefs as driven, mercenary and hotheaded. More than one producer has marveled at how she can hand a filmmaker his head on a platter yet leave her office with dignity.

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