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The Bigger Picture

Former studio head Sherry Lansing on leaving movies behind for a career focused on improving education and fighting cancer

Photograph by Peden Munk

Sherry Lansing’s grinding work ethic helped her ascend from being a struggling actress to becoming the first woman to head a movie studio when she was named president of production at 20th Century Fox in 1984. Shortly after marrying William Friedkin, the Academy Award-winning director of The Exorcist and To Live and Die in L.A., she left Fox to lead Paramount for 12 years as CEO. Then in 2005, Lansing left the film business altogether. In fact, the executive had been plotting a move from film to philanthropy for some time. Along with running the Sherry Lansing Foundation, she cofounded the organization Stand Up to Cancer, which has raised more than $250 million for cancer research. She also serves as a University of California regent and on the boards of more than a dozen other nonprofits. One of her projects is centered around encore careers, channeling would-be retirees from the city’s professional class to schoolrooms in some of L.A.’s most challenged neighborhoods. We caught up with Lansing—who was a substitute teacher at various South L.A. high schools early on—to talk about her own encore in her Century City office, 20 stories above the Fox movie lot she used to preside over.

After all those years in Hollywood, how were you able to jump so fast into a new career?
I always knew this was what I wanted to do. I’d tell [Viacom chairman] Sumner [Redstone], “Eventually I’m going to leave this job, and this is what I’m going to do.” I told myself, “I’m never going to turn 60 in this job.” It was a part of my life the whole time I was in the movies. In the industry you’re often asked to turn a premiere into a fund-raising event for a cause. I was always a soft touch because these causes would just move me. But philanthropy became my focus when I was 40 and lost my mother to ovarian cancer—a horrible disease. It literally eats your body. When she died, I thought, “The only way I can honor her is to raise money for cancer research so that no one else has to suffer through this.” So I was chomping at the bit to get into philanthropy. Not that I didn’t love making movies. But I had made over 200 of them, and at a certain point you feel like you’re repeating yourself. You’re working on a lot more than cancer, though. Initially it was just going to be about cancer research. But along the way my interests broadened. I became a UC regent and got very interested in that. I also wanted to create programs at the schools that I used to teach at—Dorsey, Manual Arts, and Crenshaw in South L.A.

How did you put together teaching and encore careers?
I was appointed to two state committees that were trying to address problems in public education. One of the big issues is the shortage of math and science teachers. In California alone we’re going to need about 33,000 of them over the next decade. Everyone was asking, “How can we recruit MIT grads to be math and science teachers?” I thought, “We’re never going to do that, not for $35,000. Let’s flip it. Why not take these people from Qualcomm or Boeing who are retiring and have math and science skills and have them, in their third chapter, be teachers?” Not everyone wants to play golf every day. For the companies it was a no-brainer. They’ve got to offer these packages to their retirees. And I told companies like Boeing, “By the way, if there are no math and science teachers, who are you going to hire?”

LAUSD is a huge bureaucracy, and to get these new teachers into the system you have to give them at least a year of training first. Is this program scalable?
I see no reason why not. We haven’t had that many flameouts, though we do have a lot of people who want to teach but don’t want to do it full-time. They tutor, substitute—they’re still having an impact. Now we’re in 16 schools across Los Angeles. An older teacher is everything. Those kids who don’t know what math does, now they have a teacher who can tell them, “Look, I was a vice president at Boeing...” It’s not just math and science now, either. There is a film academy at Cleveland High School, where people who were in the movie business teach them about camera, about directing, about story.

When were you teaching at these schools yourself?
It was right after the Watts riots. I was a long-term sub. Once I was sent to work at a reform school where they had guards outside my door. But I chose those schools. I found this rewarding. At the time I had no money myself. I lived in a one-bedroom rental off Vermont. I shared a car. South L.A. seemed a lot less foreign to me than, say, Bel-Air.

What would you point to as the biggest problem L.A. is facing in public education?
Just getting good teachers. When I go back to the schools that I taught at, not that much has changed. There’s a lack of facilities, no art education, no music. But the greatest problem any school faces, no matter how much money you throw at it, is lack of good teachers. I am not criticizing any teacher in the L.A. school system. Most of them are highly dedicated because it is such a hard job. But the greatest problem is flipping the value system in today’s society and making teaching as valuable as winning an Academy Award. There is something wrong with a world that doesn’t value teachers and scientists at the top of the food chain.

Do you think people in the city are engaged enough with the public education crisis?
It’s a bit like cancer. People think it’s going to be around forever. But you can never give up. And it’s going to get better. You just have to be happy for the little things you can achieve. It’s not a good enough excuse to me when people say, “It’s unsolvable. It’s never going to change.”

More than a few people in Hollywood send their kids to private school. Does that make it tougher for them to relate to public education woes?
I’m not going to judge anybody. One of my stepkids went to public; one went to private. What you want is the best for your children. The best thing is a public education with great teachers and a diverse student body. But if the public school that’s available to you is unsafe and ill equipped, then the best option might be private school. You can’t wave a magic wand and have everyone born into a middle-class family. But you should be able to level the playing field by allowing everyone to go to a decent school. To me, education is the way out of poverty.

As a UC regent, you headed the search committee that picked Janet Napolitano as the new University of California president. What prompted you to get so involved?
I joined the regents because I hated the SATs. I thought we should take a more holistic approach to how someone could get into college. I was also obsessed with health policy, and I wanted to learn more about it. So I got involved with UC hospitals. As a regent, you serve without any pay, it takes an enormous amount of time, and yet every regent I’ve met has had a tremendous commitment and work ethic. At our recent meeting we met Randy Schekman, the Berkeley professor who just won the Nobel Prize for medicine. What does he do with his Nobel Prize money? He plans to endow a chair in cancer research because his mother and sister died of cancer, too. It made me cry.

In the ten years you’ve been a regent, you’ve witnessed brutal cuts in the UC system.
We went through a period of budget cuts and tuition increases that made all of us sick. But we had no other options. We started looking for alternative sources of revenue. Students protested every meeting. And then we got a governor, Jerry Brown, who defies all expectations.

How so?
He can’t be corrupted. He’s got nothing to lose. He says the only way we’re going to get this money is to raise taxes. Who else would say that? It’s political suicide. But he did. The students got out and supported it. And it passed. It’s not a magic bullet, but we are in really good shape compared with where we were. I think Janet Napolitano will do an extraordinary job.

You’re a founder of Stand Up to Cancer, which puts on a telethon every year that is now carried by all the networks as well as many cable stations. But there are a lot of cancer organizations. What makes this one different?
If you’ve been touched by cancer, which just about everyone has, you know that the doctor in Los Angeles doesn’t talk to the doctor at Sloan-Kettering. Sometimes the first floor doesn’t talk to the second floor. We wanted to change the funding model. We wanted to create a new type of collaboration. We brought together some of the leading researchers in cancer research and tried to understand how we could break down silos in cancer research. So we came up with the idea of creating dream teams. In order to apply for a grant from the research council, they have to have a dream team of scientists with only one scientist from each institution. They have to come together and share information. And because our grants are about $10 million, it’s worth it to them. We’ve given away more than $250 million so far.

Speaking of a field with lots of rivalries, when you were named head of 20th Century Fox at the age of 40, did you think you had broken through the glass ceiling in the movie industry?
When I was 30, I actually said that I would never see a woman as the head of a studio in my lifetime. I really believed it. My female friends were so furious I said that. So I realized I needed to develop more self-esteem to believe that I could do that job. I went into therapy and got a lot of help. My mother, all she ever wanted was for me to get married and have two kids. When I was named head of Fox, she said, “Oh no, now no one will marry you.” Of course, she took it back and was very proud.

How much gender bias is there in the industry today?
I know this is extremely unpopular to say, but I think the movie industry is gender blind. It’s not perfect, mind you.

How about philanthropy—is Hollywood sufficiently engaged?
I think it is among the most generous communities in the entire world, and the celebrity culture is among the most giving. They can get passionate about a cause.

Sure, but shouldn’t we be a little cynical about how every celebrity seems to need to have a charity on his or her résumé?
Let me just say this: All of the celebrities I know and have engaged with are incredibly sincere and dedicated to their causes. They have been extremely generous. They didn’t receive any money. They had no reason for doing it except that they cared.

The industry doesn’t have the greatest reputation in terms of what it gives back to the city. Disney Hall could have been built in a jiffy if someone like Steven Spielberg had gotten behind it. Instead it took years to raise the money. And look how long it’s taken to build a museum of film.
They have to be asked. I believe the Hollywood community is extraordinarily generous, but you have to engage their passion. If you do, they’ll give. Someone who loves classical music or the opera will support something like that if it’s their passion. But you can’t make someone do something if their passion isn’t there.

Putting Hollywood aside, what’s your vision of how philanthropy should work?
Philanthropy just can’t be a bunch of rich people getting together. It can’t just be about money. It has to be about ideas. It’s very similar to making a movie. You think of something you want to do and you bring people together to collaborate with you, and then you hope it has an impact. There have to be people who come together who know what you’re talking about. It needs to be a teacher who is in an inner-city school talking to you about what it’s like to teach. And if you don’t have that teacher there, you’re going to get nothing done.

You grew up in Chicago. What challenges do you think are built into the system in L.A.?
It is limited compared with Chicago, in that you have to drive. In the Southside you were exposed, you saw things. Here you can grow up in isolated communities. And it’s got to become one big community. That was the advantage of Chicago. Walk down the street and it’s one community; cross the street, it’s another. A wealthy street followed by a poor street. You just saw it when you walked to school. Here you’re not exposed. You could go around and think that everything is fine. And it’s not fine.

Working on as many boards as you have, are there any practices you’ve observed that could be applied to how the city is run?
It was shocking to me to find out about the level of poverty in L.A. Jimmy Carter told me that years ago, and I had no idea. It’s a shocking statistic. I don’t have the answers to that question. You first have to make people care. You have to make people think you can solve something. It’s not good enough to walk away just because something seems daunting. You have to bring a diverse group of people together to talk. Usually you need a charismatic leader of some sort. All problems are almost always solved by somebody with a vision.

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