This Day In History: January 2

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“Former Model Named Head of Fox Productions” ran the headline in the January 2, 1980, issue of the New York Times, over an article announcing that Sherry Lansing had been selected to lead the production department at 20th Century Fox. After signing a three-year contract at a minimum of $300,000 per year (plus the possibility of hefty bonuses based on box-office returns), Lansing became not only the first woman to head production at a major movie studio, but also one of the highest-paid female executives in any industry.

Though Lansing later expressed irritation at the prominent mentions of her modeling career in the press coverage of her promotion, there was no doubt that she had an unusual resume for a top studio executive. Just 35 years old at the time, the Northwestern University graduate was a former high school math teacher who was later featured in television commercials for Max Factor hair products. A role in the John Wayne movie Rio Lobo hooked Lansing on the film industry, and she landed a job as a script reader for an independent producer. Rising through the ranks from executive story editor to executive vice-president of creative affairs at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she left that studio for Columbia Pictures, where she rose to vice-president of production and later senior VP.

Lansing’s appointment came after months of uncertainty at 20th Century Fox. President Alan Ladd Jr., who had been at the reins for the studio’s 1977 mega-hit Star Wars, had resigned in July amid disagreements with studio chairman Dennis Stanfill. When most of the company’s top brass also left in the fallout, the new vice-chairman and chief operating officer Alan Hirschfield, the former president of Columbia Pictures, brought on new people from his old studio. Lansing, who had worked as a senior production executive on Columbia’s critically acclaimed hits Kramer vs. Kramer (which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture) and The China Syndrome (starring Michael Douglas), was one of these hires. As Hirschfield told The New York Times, “The latest Motion Picture Association of America report shows that the audience is still trending down in age. Sixty percent of the audience is between the ages of 14 and 24. Sherry can attract the younger creative movie makers who can make pictures that attract the younger audience.”

In her three years at Fox, Lansing counted Chariots of Fire, The Verdict and Taps among her successes. She left the studio in 1983 to form a production venture with Stanley Jaffe; their union produced Fatal Attraction (1987), The Accused (1988), Black Rain (1989), School Ties (1992) and Indecent Proposal (1993). After Jaffe became president of Paramount Communication, Lansing took over the chairmanship of Paramount Pictures in 1992. During her 12-year tenure there, the studio had an impressive run of hits, including the blockbuster hits Forrest Gump (1994), Braveheart (1995) and Titanic (1997), all winners of the Oscar for Best Picture. The latter two were co-produced with Fox.

Lansing left Paramount in 2004, after the company was bought by Viacom. She subsequently formed her own foundation, dedicated to raising funds for cancer research, and received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 79th Academy Awards in 2007.