Sherry Lansing on Female Film Execs, Hollywood Movies, Cancer Research, Education, and Mel Gibson

Sherry Lansing on Female Film Execs,
Copyright Matej Divizna, Getty Images Entertainment

Sherry Lansing, the former prexy of 20th Century Fox, and chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures for 12 years, was at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival this week with her husband, William Friedkin, who received the Crystal Globe for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema.

Lansing, who played a leading role in the success of such films as “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and Titanic,” spoke to Variety about the prospects for talented female executives in international territories, the quality of Hollywood movies today, her objectives in the field of philanthropy, and Mel Gibson.

In 1980, you earned the status of trailblazer when you became the first woman to head a Hollywood studio. Although many female execs have followed in your footsteps Stateside, in international territories it is far less common to find female heads of leading film companies. What are the key factors that would change that and help talented female executives rise worldwide?

The fact that it has happened in the United States means that it can happen anywhere. When I was 35 years old there weren’t any women at the top. Now there have been so many women — women running every studio, every network, women producers, women directors… So the fact that you have that means that other countries look at it and they see that.

The qualities that you need as a woman are: First of all you need to work really hard and you need to concentrate on your work, and not pay any attention to anything else that’s going on, and have great resiliency, and not take it personal.

In Europe, there have been women heads of countries, in the U.K. and Germany, for example. We have yet to have a female president in the U.S. but I am confident that we will in my lifetime.

I think the U.S. is slowly but surely becoming gender blind, and I think other countries will as well.

The entertainment business is very difficult for men too. Every time a woman doesn’t get a job, it’s not just because she’s a woman. Sometimes there is a man who is more qualified, or different circumstances went into it. So it’s a tough business for anybody. There are a lot of obstacles to overcome, and my best advice is to concentrate on the work, and ignore all the other stuff that goes on, and it just will happen.

Many of the films that you produced as an independent producer, or were produced during your time in charge at Fox and Paramount, like “Fatal Attraction,” “Indecent Proposal,” “Braveheart” and “Titanic,” were sophisticated movies with strong story-lines that could be appreciated by an adult audience. Do you worry that Hollywood isn’t producing as many of those films now?

Well, I haven’t been in the business for 10 years, so I’m now just a fan. I’m now just a wonderful moviegoer, who sits there, and it’s such a different experience, and in many ways my love of movies is stronger, because when you are running a studio you see a really good movie that you didn’t make and you get a sick feeling in your stomach, and you go: “Why didn’t I make that movie? It’s coming out on the same weekend that our movie is coming out. What am I going to do?” Today I just go and see it.

I’m an observer, so I don’t know if I am right, but as a moviegoer I think that the studios are making the big-budget movies, they are making wonderful movies, they are making a lot of tentpoles, the special effects movies, and they are appealing to a mass audience, but the independent movement is alive and well and strong, and the money to make those films is very, very strong, and any given weekend I don’t have one or two choices of independents, I have five or six choices, I almost can’t keep up with them.

And what has equally changed in the U.S. is television. Television is extraordinary today in the U.S. So the longform, 10 or 12 hours, or the “Homelands” of life, is where so much of the drama is being done. “True Detective,” which is showing at Karlovy Vary, is extraordinary. And they attract so much of the talent. The lines are now invisible. It used to be when I was in the business that a really talented director or actor wouldn’t do television. Well today everybody does it. Matthew McConaughey wins the Academy Award and he does “True Detective.” That’s great.

So as long as I can get quality in any one of the distribution forms, I am happy. So I am happy. In many ways the opportunities are even greater. I am very loyal to the studio system, and I am very loyal to Paramount. I can enjoy “Transformers,” “Begin Again,” “24: Live Another Day,” just to name a few. I think it is great that the lines are blurred.

For me, I have to admit I am a consumer of a lot of material — and this is not good — on my iPad. I shudder to think of how I would have felt about that when I was in the business. I don’t have to be totally dependent on waiting until it comes to the theater. I can consume more quality entertainment in more different ways.

If the studios are changing now, then who knows where they’ll be in 10 years. They might be making independents, but they’re not now. But it doesn’t make any difference, as long as they are being made.

I respect the enormous skill-set that goes into some of the big-budget movies, and the enormous talent and the enormous production value. And I enjoy it too. I enjoy all three. I am a very eclectic moviegoer. And I’m a fan. I loved “The Fault in Our Stars,” and that was a studio movie. I thought that was just wonderful. I sat there and remembered how I felt when I saw “Love Story.” I sobbed during “The Fault in Our Stars.”

In terms of your philanthropic work, and in particular the activities of the Sherry Lansing Foundation, what are the objectives that you’d like to see achieved in your lifetime?

Well, no cancer. I wouldn’t use the word “cure” for cancer, but I would say for cancer to become a chronic disease like diabetes, that would be my dream. Enormous progress has been made through Stand Up to Cancer, which was started by seven women, and with the help of a great many scientists we came up with these new funding models, and have given away $300 million, so lives have been saved, and people are living longer with cancer, not just because of us but because of all the cancer research that is going on. But it is still the most horrible disease, and every week several people I know are struck with it, and every week you know someone who is battling it and doesn’t make it, and I think of my mother every day, and, yes, I hope that within my lifetime it is a chronic disease like diabetes.

And education: a level playing field, that every single person, no matter what their economic status, gets a good public-school education, like when I was growing up. We expected it. In the public schools that we have programs in in the state of California there are schools that do not have math or science teachers. They are being taught math and science by the art teacher. So we have a big program to retrain people for encore careers, past 55, who have math and science skills to be teachers and go into these schools. But how can this happen? I live in Los Angeles, and the schools that I taught in in Watts and East L.A., there are not enough math teachers, so they are being taught math by an art teacher or somebody else. How can they possibly get the passion for math and the love for math that I had, and how can they pass their SATs and get into college? So it is not a level playing field. And that is so painful to me because unless it is a level playing field there will be poverty, because the only way out of poverty, I think, is though education.

Those would be the two aspirational things. So it keeps you going because we are so far from those dreams.

The real question to me is: Do all those skill-sets that you had when you were making movies really apply to philanthropy? Because you have as many disappointments in the movie business. You just have to keep going and have that passion and never give up. And I think what happens to someone like myself is you care so much about cancer research and education that you measure your successes in little steps and you have to take pleasure in that. You go into a school, and there may be two children who have been helped by one of your programs, and are now going to a good school.

I am very involved in Big Brothers, Big Sisters. You see these children that have a Big Sister – and we started a fulfillment fund to send them to college — they go to college and they come back. They are now having careers and lives. They’re going back to their community as well as going out. You see this person, you see that person, and it is not a level playing field, but at least there’s been an impact – you can see the face of that person. So that keeps you going.

In cancer research — not just because of our work — you know that someone can call you up, and you can say: “Wait a minute, your disease can be put into remission.” And then you see other people, and at least you can get them to the best help possible. So you measure it in small steps, but those steps for me at this time in my life are way more satisfying than a hit movie was.

The last 10 years have been the happiest in my life, but I would have said that to you when I was 50. So each time should be the happiest, but I think that life is about those changes, and growing, and having new curiosity, and new things that come into your life.

I met Mel Gibson a few days ago, because he received an award in Karlovy Vary. I assume — because of “Braveheart” – you got to know him?

Very, very well, and we actually did many movies with him. We did “Braveheart,” which was the first. It is one of my favorite movies in the entire world. I think it is a masterpiece. And we did “Payback,” and we did “We Were Soldiers,” and “What Women Want,” which was one of my favorite movies we ever made at Paramount.

Yes, he was a total joy to work with, and we kept in touch.

I have been puzzling over how he managed to get into such a difficult place, and how he can get his career back on track, so he’s directing films again.

It would be very unfair for me to comment on how he got to a difficult place because I wasn’t there. I hadn’t seen him during that period of time. I don’t know. But I can only comment on the person I know, and the person that I knew then at Paramount, and that’s all I can really talk about. He was one of the most gifted human beings I have ever worked with in my entire life. He would sit there and out of him would come this genius.

And I still remember when we committed to “Braveheart,” and it was a difficult commitment, because it was Mel Gibson in a kilt. He had directed a picture before, so you knew he could direct. And I remember that we argued — argued? I had a point of view, he had a point of view — about what the movie should cost. The studio wanted it to cost this, he wanted it to cost that. We kept going back and forth – not personally but through representatives – and finally we arrived at a decision that was far less than he had asked for, and more than I… it was both, you know. And I remember seeing him and saying: “I hope you are not angry.” And he looked at me and said: “No, you were doing your job, and I was doing mine.”

And then he started to do the movie, and I went to Scotland to visit him, to see some of the film, and I was blown away, and I remember calling (Paramount Pictures’ production prexy) John Goldwyn, and saying: “This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life.”

I mean you never know for sure, and the picture was a masterpiece.

So the person that I knew was a genius, unbelievably hard working, unbelievably fair, and decent to everybody. Not homophobic, not anti-Semitic, not anti-women. I mean nothing, I mean nothing. So that’s the person I know, and that’s the person I see, and I don’t think that when you drink that you necessarily speak the truth. I think when you drink you become another person chemically, and I have no idea why. All I know is that he remains, in my opinion, extraordinarily talented.

I thought “The Beaver” was one of the best movies I ever saw. I saw it twice. I thought his performance was incredible, and Jodie Foster’s directing was extraordinary. I just loved it. And I root for anyone that is talented to continue to make movies because I want to see them. I selfishly want to see them.
What I want to say is, the person on the tapes in the media – involved in those incidents – is not the person I know.

What is it that makes a great film festival for you?

What makes a great film festival is the quality of the filmmakers that you attract, and I think they are doing an amazing job at Karlovy Vary. The people that run it make you feel welcome and well taken care of. And then there’s the site.

So if someone says: “I have one of the most beautiful places in the world – we are going to take really good care of you, and we are going to run your film, and we are going to honor you,” and you’re available, then …

I still remember when Peter Bart came back from Karlovy Vary. I’d heard of it, and it was probably just beginning to be successful, but coming here now I will guarantee this will be one of the most successful film festivals forever, because the people who are running it are exceptional. They are just doing everything right. We have been treated magnificently. I don’t have one single thing that I would change. I am incredibly grateful.

They have balanced the amount of work you do, so you are not leaving here saying: “Oh my god! I didn’t even get to walk around the city. What was the point?”

There are many films I wanted to see here. And then there is this magnificent location. I walked around the first day we got here. Oh my god it is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in my life, and the nicest people. I just love the people. Lovely, lovely people.

(This article was updated July 14.)