Peter Bart: CEOs Mulling Exec Suite Exit Might Study Sherry Lansing’s Escape Strategy

Sherry Lansing

“I have never been good at exit strategies,” David Begelman once told me. A charming and talented man, Begelman managed to be fired twice as a studio president, once by Columbia and later by MGM, and narrowly escaped jail in both cases.

Begelman represented an extreme example of a recurring problem for Hollywood’s power elite: Once you’ve run a studio or a network and lost your gig, how do you create a third act? How come Michael Ovitz, Philippe Dauman, Michael Lynton and a score of former production heads haven’t come up with a better plan — especially in view of the growing turbulence atop the majors?

Hollywood is like a narcotic, as Ray Stark, the fabled producer, liked to put it — one that captures women power players as well as men. Amy Pascal, whose Sony executive career was abruptly terminated by the hacking scandals, this week has been aggressively unveiling an array of producing deals, reflecting her acknowledgement of Stark’s doctrine. “She’s a survivor — and more ambitious than ever, Tom Rothman told the New York Times.

Sherry Lansing, by contrast, firmly shut the door on movies when she quit Paramount in 2004 to move on to a formidable career in education and health. “I never defined myself by my job,” Lansing observed the other day. “When I decided it was time for my next chapter, I worked hard to prepare myself. It was like prepping for college — I started to take home books, not scripts, studying up on possible future areas of interest.”

Sherry Lansing, right, at a Board of Regents meeting in January

Although Lansing had become a symbol of female empowerment as the first woman production chief at Fox and then at Paramount, she figured that the skills of making movies could translate into other socially worthy pursuits. Striking a compromise between a warring director and a movie star could also apply to settling controversies between academics at the sprawling campuses of the giant University of California, where Lansing serves on the prestigious board of regents. “The tactics may be similar, but in the world of nonprofits you rely on cajoling, not yelling. And F-bombs don’t fly,” she advises. Lansing’s service as a regent has not been without its perils. Upon leaving meetings dealing with tuition increases, Lansing encounters crowds of 2,000 protesting students, with choppers hovering overhead as in a movie battle scene.

Lansing’s other adventures in the nonprofit world have presented myriad challenges. She has fought hard on both the political and fundraising fronts in support of stem cell research — initiatives that faced stiff opposition. Her Stand Up To Cancer drives have raised more than $500 million thanks to unrelenting fundraising and TV events. In an entirely separate arena, Lansing has organized initiatives to train older people to re-enter the workplace as volunteers. Yet another innovative program channels executives with tech backgrounds to assume math and science teaching positions in the schools.

The transition from moviedom has not always been easy. “I often miss the pace of filmmaking,” she says. “Quick decisions have to be made. Release dates stare you in the face.” The nonprofit world, by contrast, has different rhythms. Phone calls may not be returned, pledges not honored. Lansing made dozens of phone calls to school principals in organizing her training programs, yet few were returned. In fundraising, however, Lansing is unafraid to search for new givers. She even elicited a precedent-setting pledge of $10 million for cancer research from Major League Baseball.

Lansing’s well-known talents for diplomacy served her well in her movie years, surviving brawls with the likes of Scott Rudin and Sean Penn. Her reign at Paramount embraced such fabled hits as Fatal Attraction and Forrest Gump. Her 12 years at Paramount were ably documented in a book, Leading Lady, written by Stephen Galloway. But Lansing shows little interest in re-living those days. Her husband, director Billy Friedkin, is her principal personal link to moviedom. But she hasn’t read a script in years.

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