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Sherry Lansing’s come a long way from Fox, baby

FOR SOME TIME NOW, PARAMOUNT has been a studio with an identity crisis, a condition that has caused great consternation in Hollywood. The movie industry, circa 1993, is composed of great numbers of sellers and a tiny list of buyers. Hence when one of the buyers seems to lose its way — especially one as well-financed as Paramount — the ripples of angst and frustration can be felt throughout the community.

Six months into the regime of Sherry Lansing, however, there are distinct signs that Paramount has found a new direction. Deals are being closed, pictures are shooting once again, and a coherent modus operandi seems to be emerging. The community is breathing a sigh of relief.

The key components to the “new Paramount” are these:

  • The studio has set out to build a core of producer and writer deals, while abjuring the expensive and often futile omnibus deals with directors.

  • A concerted effort is being made to turn out as many as 20 pictures this year, moving up to 25 by 1994 — a considerable upturn from the level of recent years.

  • While Paramount is intent on releasing two or three “tentpole” projects a year, budgets will be kept well below the $ 50 million range, and generous deferments will be awarded to those stars and star directors who take less money up front.

A high-profile example of this approach is the newly reconstituted “Beverly Hills Cop III.” Starring Eddie Murphy and directed by John Landis, the project reportedly now falls in the mid-$ 40 million range thanks to deferments and other trims. Bob Rehme and Mace Neufeld will produce the film, which rolls next summer.

In her first six months on the job, Sherry Lansing has been buoyed by two massive hits –“Indecent Proposal” (which she co-produced) and “The Firm”– which together could elicit over $ 400 million from box offices around the world. Needless to say, hits of this magnitude lend momentum to a new regime and bolster the confidence of the marketing and distribution team.

No one knows this better than Lansing, who a decade ago was the industry’s first distaff studio prexy at Fox. Though praised and pampered in that post, Lansing was occasionally criticized for appearing indecisive and for deferring too often to the forceful men around her.

LANSING IS ENMESHED YET AGAIN amid such fierce presences as Martin Davis and Stanley Jaffe, but those close to Lansing note a new forcefulness and poise. The “new” Sherry Lansing, associates report, is wiser, vastly wealthier, and knows she holds some important chips. For one thing, she didn’t solicit the Paramount job; the company aggressively recruited her. For a complex range of factors, both business and personal, Lansing was the key player who could solve Paramount’s gridlock.

While Lansing was hailed by feminists for achieving her lofty status a decade ago, the Lansing of 1993 hardly fits the old-fashioned stereotype of the woman exec. Her style is cool and detached. “Sherry manipulates the emotions of others around her, she isn’t manipulated by others,” says a producer at Paramount. Adds a colleague: “Sherry doesn’t yell or carry on. She waits for others to stop yelling. Then she calmly tells everyone what she expects from them.”

Having spent the last decade producing pictures, Lansing instinctively depends on a trusted network of studio producers for her product flow. She has extended existing deals with Neufeld & Rehme, Lorne Michaels and Scott Rudin, and has forged new ties with Gale Anne Hurd, David Brown, Barry Levinson and Mark Johnson, and Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, among others. There are also deals with Robert Redford and Tom Cruise, who head actor-driven production entities.

Next on Lansing’s agenda is the task of creating exclusive deals with talented writers, such as Jeffrey Boam, who’s working on “The Phantom,” and John Bishop, who worked on “Beverly Hills Cop III.” Her aim: to build her own packages rather than feed off projects assembled by talent agencies.

While wary of megabudgets, Lansing has shown a willingness to commit big bucks to scripts she has fancied. Witness the $ 1 million laid out for “Milk Money,” written by John Mattson, a 26-year-old unknown. It will be produced by the Kennedy and Marshall team with Richard Benjamin directing.

Like every other studio chief, Lansing is struggling to find the right balance between the pricey tentpole projects and the inexpensive sleepers. Having been in the bidding for Miramax, which ended up at Disney, Paramount presently is weighing the efficacy of building a new entity to market “specialized” pictures.

To this end, she’s lined up a number of promising pictures of this genre, such as “Dexterity,” a recession drama to be directed by Michael Caton-Jones, and the remake of “The Browning Version.” Releases like the upcoming “Searching for Bobby Fischer” stir her excitement more than the prospect of backing a new $ 60 million sci-fi epic.

To be sure, the list of high-end product has also been fleshed out of late: “Clear and Present Danger” starring Harrison Ford, “Forrest Gump” starring Tom Hanks and directed by Bob Zemeckis, and a Ridley Scott western called “Pancho’s War,” among them.

WHAT LANSING MOST WANTS TO AVOID in the future is the sort of crisis management imposed on her when she first took office. Confronting her was a serious dearth of product, an anemic development slate, plus an array of “problem pictures” like “Sliver.” By and large she’s earned high marks for steering the studio through a tough period.

“Sherry can be as tough as they come, but she can also be downright corny,” says one studio associate. “She really wants to build a happy family here. She wants a loyal infrastructure devoid of politics and backbiting. I think it’s kind of sweet, but in this business she’s crazy if she ever thinks she can bring it off.”

He reflected for a beat and then added: “Then again, if anyone can do it …”

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