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‘Sherry’ survives by not being ‘one of the guys’

MEMO TO: SHERRY LANSING

I’VE GOT A SIMPLE QUESTION for you, Sherry, but maybe it’s more complicated than I think. The question is this: How do you do it? In a town steeped in intrigue and backbiting, how do you manage to hover above the fray? How did you levitate yourself into that pantheon of hierarchs like “Rupert” or “Sumner” — men known only by their first names? Now you’ve become deified only as “Sherry.”

In Hollywood, just about every executive at one time or another is rumored to be in jeopardy, but not you, Sherry. Now that Semel and Daly have made their exits, you have seniority by far over reigning studio chiefs — 11 years at the top if one adds the Fox years to those at Paramount.

“She’ll be at Paramount until she no longer wants to be at Paramount,” suggests one of the town’s top agents. This declaration is all the more amazing since you don’t own the company; you’re not even a major stockholder.

If you were in politics, Sherry, columnists would call you the goddess of Teflon. Indeed, when something goes wrong at Paramount, the finger’s never pointed at you. Of course, not many things ever go wrong. Year after year, the studio’s market share hovers near the top of the heap, even though there’s rarely been a true megahit, except for “Titanic,” which Paramount shared with Fox.

And 1999 is shaping up as a typical Paramount year, with hits like “Double Jeopardy,” “The General’s Daughter” and “Runaway Bride.” No one would suggest these were superb examples of the filmmaking craft, Sherry, but surely that’s part of your secret. You seem to be able to mobilize fairly conventional stories, often about female revenge — stories that, in the wrong hands, could easily fade into the landscape. Somehow, under your tutelage, they emerge as $100 million hits.

You first exhibited this gift back in your producing days — witness “Indecent Proposal” and “Fatal Attraction.” At Paramount you did it again starting with “The First Wives Club.”

I’ll make an admission here, Sherry — I would never have guessed “The General’s Daughter” would make it to $122 million. On the other hand, I’m not known only by my first name.

It’s not like you never take a shot with risky fare, Sherry. I admired “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” for example. The new Martin Scorsese movie, “Bringing Out the Dead,” is not exactly a walk in the park, and even “Forrest Gump” represented a formidable gamble. So does the upcoming “Angela’s Ashes.”

But you never balk at turning down the power players — albeit politely. “Sherry’s always gracious, and she always calls me ‘honey,’ even when she’s rejecting my desperate pleas,” says one producer on the lot. “I love Sherry, even though I have no idea who she really is.”

WHEN NECESSARY, YOU CAN be fiercely confrontational. “I’ve seen her take a director apart after seeing his rough cut,” says one producer. “I’ve had to sweep up the pieces.”

“Sherry’s the first executive who succeeded by being a woman, not trying to be a guy,” says one of the town’s top filmmakers. “She can be maternal, she can be sexy, she can use her femininity to be manipulative, but she’s always, brilliantly, a woman.”

That’s pretty nice praise, Sherry. Even the manipulative part.

To be sure, your “people skills” have been put to a test often enough over the years. As a young executive, you worked for some pretty demanding bosses like Dan Melnick and Alan Hirschfeld. You managed to survive difficult times at Fox — a place that daunted such cool customers like Alan Horn and Scott Rudin. You sustained a long-term producing partnership with Stanley Jaffe, a man famous more for tantrums than tact.

At Paramount you’ve managed to co-exist with Jonathan Dolgen, who can be dogmatic at times. And now, as other Viacom executives jockey to stay out of the line of fire between Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin, you will surely navigate an impeccably smooth course.

All of which brings me back to my initial question, Sherry. How in hell do you do it? More important, why don’t you take an hour or so every week to give us mere mortals a lecture in civility and survivorship? We need you, Sherry — don’t let us down.

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