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Post-Sherry Par seeks pic players

Topper ankling at deal's end

Who’s going to succeed Sherry?

Aside from the progress of the presidential election, speculation on Lansing’s replacement was the hot topic in Hollywood on Tuesday. Lansing officially announced she’ll step down as chief of Paramount Pictures by the end of next year when her current contract ends — a move the town had widely expected she’d make.

Lansing said she took the first step toward ankling because she wanted to give Viacom co-prexy Tom Freston — whom she informed of her decision last week — as much time as possible to find a replacement. Freston plans to start looking as soon as possible with Lansing’s help and said he hopes he can complete the task in a few months.

“I don’t have anybody in the wings,” Freston told Daily Variety. “It’s a great but complicated job, so there will be the usual suspects and another group, too. The search is going to be exhaustive.”

No obvious single candidate seems apparent, though an assortment of names quickly emerged: Fox Searchlight chief Peter Rice, producers Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Bill Mechanic, William Morris prexy Jim Wiatt, MGM vice chair Chris McGurk, Universal film vice chairs Mary Parent and Scott Stuber, former ABC Entertainment chief Susan Lyne, Anschutz Film Group president Cary Granat, current Paramount president Donald De Line and MTV Films president Van Toffler.

Rice has achieved a solid reputation for operating effectively within budget constraints; Di Bonaventura and Mechanic have backgrounds as high-profile studio execs; Wiatt has long been mentioned as a possible studio chief; McGurk’s job may vanish once Sony completes its acquisition of MGM; Parent and Stuber have strong ongoing track records; Lyne’s recognized for developing strong telepics and “Desperate Housewives”; Granat played a key role in developing the Dimension shingle; and De Line and Toffler are intimately familiar with Par operations.

The task of replacing Lansing, who’s held the post for a dozen years, will be daunting. The studio remains mired in a three-year slump that’s seen only a handful of hits; what’s more, rivals are already eyeing potential candidates for key exec slots at MGM and for the top spots at Miramax to replace co-heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein, while the Walt Disney Co. has launched a search for a successor to longtime CEO Michael Eisner.

For the past year, the studio has been trying to change its reputation as Hollywood’s most cautious by opting for more cutting-edge fare aimed at younger auds while occasionally “swinging for the fences” with tentpole films such as its upcoming “War of the Worlds,” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise. Paramount is co-financing “Worlds” with DreamWorks.

“Our agenda has been to get new talent onto the lot, to be more talent-friendly, to be younger-skewing and be more robust in the specialty arena,” Freston said Tuesday. “But unlike TV, it takes a while for the effect of those changes to become apparent.”

In a possible move to beef up specialty operations, Par’s been in talks with Newmarket Films recently.

Lansing’s announcement comes five months after Viacom chief Sumner Redstone tapped Freston and Leslie Moonves as Viacom co-presidents. Viacom entertainment chief Jonathan Dolgen, who had been Lansing’s boss for a decade, resigned the next day.

Still in charge, she says

Lansing insisted she’s still running the studio full-time despite her pending departure. “We’re not going to miss a beat,” she added. “We’re going to continue to make deals and greenlight films left, right and center. I’m here until everything is fixed and perfect.”

Lansing’s tenure saw best picture Oscars for “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic” and major hits in “The Firm,” “What Women Want,” “Runaway Bride” and the two “Mission: Impossible” pics. But the exec, who recently turned 60, has stressed she feels a strong need to move on.

“I’ll have been in this job for 12 years and have had the opportunity and the privilege to work with the very best the entertainment industry has to offer,” Lansing said. “With the greatest team of filmmakers imaginable and the most supportive colleagues at Viacom, I have been able to accomplish more than I could have hoped for in the motion picture business. I move on with great memories, many friendships and few regrets.”

Speculation about Lansing’s departure has bubbled up periodically as Par completes its third downbeat year in a row. It’s released only a handful of successful films during that string, including “The Sum of All Fears,” “The Italian Job,” “School of Rock,” “Mean Girls,” “Jackass,” “The Hours” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” and none of these has topped $120 million domestically.

Paramount execs remain confident that a pair of upcoming holiday pics –“SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” — will break the losing streak.

Conservative approach

Lansing and Dolgen had been advocates of risk-averse strategies, both artistically (seeking middle-of-the-road projects) and financially (seeking out partners). As a result, she claims the studio has managed to finish in the black during every year of her tenure.

Amid its disappointing performance, Par’s seen extensive shuffling in its exec suite over the past two years. Most notably, former Touchstone prexy De Line replaced John Goldwyn in the studio prexy slot last January.

“She made giant contributions to the company with films that stand tall against any period in company history,” Goldwyn said. “She’s had the full range of experiences you can have in that job, five times over.”

De Line, who produced “The Italian Job,” has received strong marks for his accessibility and enthusiasm during his tenure. But speculation has risen that other exec departures in the exhibition and distribution arms may be coming.

Lansing signed her current deal in 2000.

Lansing first broke into the business as an actress in the late 1960s before choosing to work in production. In 1977, she took a job as a senior VP at Columbia Pictures and was in charge of 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Lansing made headlines in 1980 as Hollywood’s top female exec by becoming president of 20th Century Fox and oversaw “Chariots of Fire.” She then moved into hands-on moviemaking in 1983 when she teamed with onetime Paramount Pictures prexy Stanley Jaffe to form production company Jaffe-Lansing. That shingle produced major female-oriented projects such as “Fatal Attraction” and “The Accused.”

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