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Hollywood Pioneer Lansing Is Poised to Exit Paramount

November 02, 2004|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Sherry Lansing, a Hollywood pioneer who for three decades has been one of the most powerful figures in the movie business, plans to step down as chairwoman of Paramount Pictures when her contract expires at the end of next year.

According to a source familiar with the situation, Lansing will stay long enough to help choose her successor and to aid in the transition. But after 12 years in one of the most high-pressure jobs in the business, Lansing has made it known that she does not plan to seek another entertainment industry job.

Lansing's decision comes as she finds herself having to prove to her new boss, Viacom Inc. co-President Tom Freston, that she can reverse the fortunes of the struggling studio.

Carl Folta, a spokesman for Viacom, which owns Paramount, declined to comment.

Lansing has been involved with some of the most acclaimed movies of her generation -- "The China Syndrome," "Forrest Gump" and "The Accused." But during her last three years at Paramount, she has presided over a box-office slump that has prompted questions about her future in the industry.

Paramount's cold streak could continue this weekend, when its remake of "Alfie" hits theaters. Even Paramount executives say they expect the film, starring Jude Law, to do poorly.

People close to Lansing say that the unflappable executive -- a onetime actress and model who in 1980 became the first female president of production for a Hollywood studio -- has felt ambivalent about her job for some time. Lansing, they say, has grown weary of budget battles and red-carpet rituals.

In June, Lansing's boss of 10 years, Viacom's entertainment chief Jonathan Dolgen, abruptly resigned. Viacom Chief Executive Sumner Redstone had passed him over for a bigger role at the company, instead promoting Freston and CBS chief Leslie Moonves.

Lansing went to Dolgen's office on the Paramount lot in tears, asking if she too should resign, sources said. He urged her not to, if only because she would risk losing millions of dollars if she left before her contract was up on Dec. 31, 2005.

A month later, Lansing turned 60 -- a birthday she had long told business associates she did not want to celebrate while still working at Paramount.

Lansing and Freston have had recent discussions about her future at the studio, said a source close to the matter. Lansing, the source said, expressed a desire to try something different, but Freston urged her to reconsider.

Lansing is the rare Hollywood player who has established a life and identity outside the business. She sits on a number of boards, including those of the regents of the University of California, the Rand Corp., the American Red Cross and the University of Chicago. She also is an active fundraiser for the Friends of Cancer Research and for the Carter Center, former President Carter's human rights organization.

Some have speculated that Lansing, who is married to director William Friedkin, may start a nonprofit foundation and devote herself full time to public service or, possibly, to politics. A strong supporter and close friend of Sen. John F. Kerry, Lansing attended the Democratic Convention in July and is expected to be with Kerry in Boston on Tuesday to watch election returns.

"She cares about things other than the movie business -- she sees a bigger world," Columbia Pictures chief Amy Pascal said of Lansing in a recent interview with The Times. "She's been a pioneer ... making movies that nobody else would make. She always listened to her inner voice."

Lansing's expected departure would trigger yet another high-profile Hollywood succession drama. Walt Disney Co. is searching for a replacement for Chief Executive Michael Eisner, who has said he would resign when his contract expired in 2006.

Who will replace Lansing is unclear, in part because she is a Hollywood icon, unique in her longevity and stature. Redstone is believed to want an experienced film executive for the job.

In the short term, life at Paramount is not likely to change much. In recent months, Lansing has delegated many of her duties on the creative side to her production chief, Donald DeLine, whom she hired in December to replace her longtime deputy, John Goldwyn.

DeLine, former president of Disney's Touchstone Pictures, is widely considered to be accessible and savvy. Last year, he produced one of Paramount's only hits, "The Italian Job."

Lansing has made other attempts to fix problems at Paramount. Months after ousting Goldwyn, she replaced Paramount's veteran marketing chief Arthur Cohen with former MGM marketing President Gerry Rich.

Last December, Lansing made the rounds of Hollywood agencies to assure them that Paramount was eager to no longer "play it safe" and to be more talent-friendly.

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