Sherry Lansing’s 3 Lessons for Conquering Hollywood

The Hollywood trailblazer, who was the first woman to head production at a movie studio, dishes on how to win in this town

In the latest episode of Los Angeles magazine’s award-winning podcast, The Originals, host Andrew Goldman welcomes Hollywood trailblazer Sherry Lansing. 

Lansing, who began her career as an actress, notably in Howard Hawks’ final film, 1970’s Rio Lobo, went on to become the first woman to head production at a movie studio, taking over 20th Century Fox in 1980, and then the first woman to lead a studio, which she did as chairman of Paramount from 1992 to 2005. Now head of her cancer non-profit The Sherry Lansing Foundation, she shares the lessons learned that have allowed her to thrive and rise within a chauvinistic industry—and the skills it took to stay on top. Behold these three pearls of wisdom. 

Lesson 1: Become super ambitious by getting undermined early and often. 

Lansing was raised in Chicago by her mother, Margot, a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany at 17. Her father dropped dead when she was 9, leaving Margot to take over the family real estate business. These trials hardened her mother.

“I’ve often said that, though I love my mother more than life itself, if she had been less critical and perhaps able to express her love more…I would’ve had quite a different life,” Lansing says. “Everything that motivated me was to get my mother’s approval. And I don’t think I ever really got it. And if I had felt that thing that I envy so much when I see it, I probably would’ve stayed in Chicago, married a lovely local person, and…not had this need to get out there and prove that I was worthy.” 

Margot, who died in 1984, was never effusive with praise. “When I became the first woman to head a studio, she said, ‘Oh my God, now no one will marry you,’” Lansing recalls. “And she often sent me bad reviews of movies that I had done. ‘Just thought you’d like to see this.’”

Lesson 2: Learn to manage angry men. 

Lansing began her career working for the famously volcanic Dan Melnick at MGM and ended it running Paramount, working for the often foul-tempered Sumner Redstone. Known hotheads Scott Rudin, Harvey Weinstein and James Cameron would all be creative collaborators. But she learned to manage difficult men by watching her own mother’s interactions with Norton Lansing, her “second father,” who she adored but who could also be quick to anger.  

“My mother remarried when I was 12, and my second father was a businessman,” says Lansing. “He was very successful and very strong, and some would say tough. So, I watched that kind of personality that …can get angry, have a temper, and I watched my mother start to laugh when my father got mad. ‘Ooh, look at him. He’s getting all upset about such a silly thing.’ Just realize it’s a style and that’s just their way of talking. I learned when these men would say, ‘No, we’ll never make this movie,’ that you never confront them when they’re yelling because it’s too emotional. Just say, ‘Okay, I understand,’ and leave as quickly as you can. Come back the next day and you usually get the ‘yes’ you needed.”

Lesson 3: Be nice. Until you can’t. Then go nuclear. 

Lansing earned a reputation for her civility and was known to have the nicest “no” in Hollywood. But weeks before production was to begin on 1996’s The First Wives Club, Goldie Hawn sent word that she was dropping out. 

“As head of Paramount, I didn’t make the movies, but to try to create a space where [filmmakers] could make the best movie possible, and to always be on the side of the movie,” Lansing said. “So when Goldie Hawn, who I’m happy to say is still a friend, decides about a week before that she doesn’t want to do the movie, that’s an unacceptable thing. You’re in for tens of millions of dollars and you can’t replace her…I tried very logically to talk her into it and to explain to her why she should do it. She called and she said, ‘I’m not doing it.’ I said, ‘I only have two words for you: Kim Basinger,’ and I hung up the phone. Now, Kim Basinger had walked out of [Boxing Helena] and [Main Line Pictures] had sued her for everything that she had, and they won. I got a callback, ‘You wouldn’t do that to her.’ I said, “No, I would do that to her.’” Hawn showed up on set, delivered a classic performance and would apologize to Lansing for her momentary lapse in judgment. First Wives Club had a budget of $30 million and would gross over $100 million. 

Listen to the entire episode of The Originals here:

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