Sherry Lansing’s encore career

October 3, 2012

In the summer of 2008, at a national gathering of Hadassah in downtown Los Angeles, nearly 2,000 women shrieked with delight as Sherry Lansing, the pioneering first female to run a movie studio, coolly extolled the upside of aging.

“I used to think 60 is the new 40,” Lansing said brazenly. “Now I say 60 is the new 60!”

Lansing was the keynote speaker that morning, there to discuss her transition from workforce leader — specifically, her 14-year tenure as chairwoman of Paramount Pictures — to philanthropist. Although some say she was poised to become the first bona fide female mogul, Lansing turned 60 and decided instead to pull the curtain on her Hollywood ambitions. “In my late 50s, I started to get bored,” she confessed during a recent interview. “I’d had a wonderful career, I loved movies, I loved my time in the film business — but I felt as if I was repeating myself. The highs weren’t as high; the lows weren’t as low. I had this pull to have a different kind of life.” 

Widely regarded by her industry colleagues as both kind and intellectually curious, she sought to develop a more expansive legacy, one that could parlay her career into a late-middle-life calling. By no means did she plan to retire — that would not be her nature — but she sought an encore, a “third act,” as she put it, that would give her life purpose and meaning and enable her to share some of her very considerable fortune with others.   

“She was incredibly measured and clear-headed about leaving,” producer and former Disney executive Donald De Line said about her exit. “But I thought, ‘It’s too seductive, the power, the job itself is so thrilling.’ I think everybody kind of thought, ‘OK, that’s what she’s saying — she’s not really gonna go. People can’t give up those jobs. Usually, they go kicking and screaming and have to be pushed out the door. That was not the case with Sherry. She turned 60, and she was gone. And she never looked back.” 

But privately, Lansing feared the unscripted day. A notorious workaholic, she agonized over the potential emptiness. “She was concerned that after being so immersed in the world of entertainment that she would maybe feel she didn’t have enough to do,” her friend, the author and philanthropist Cheryl Saban recalled. “She reached out to everybody and asked, ‘What am I gonna do with myself when I retire?’ ”

But if the movie business had taught her anything at all, it’s that the third act is the most climactic. “The way to stay young, I am convinced, is to be eternally curious,” Lansing said. So no, she would not retire; she would reinvent herself. The question was, how? With great expectations sure to shadow her on the path, how would she begin, or, really, begin again, in her 60s?

The modern era is not exactly kind to the aged, and American culture, even less so. In large part due to Hollywood, the obsession with youth and glamour often seems to eclipse the relevance and reality of anyone over 35. Both men and women, as they advance in years, are likely to be met with efforts to resist and deny the march of time — Botox this, brow-lift that — rather than any encouragement to re-up or reinvent the possibilities of extended middle life.  

Where the culture is poor, however, Judaism is rich. The High Holy Days, in particular, simulate a midlife crisis every year. On Yom Kippur, for example, in a day of intense confrontation with mortality, Jews of all ages recite the Shema Koleinu prayer: “Do not cast us aside when we are old,” it pleads. 

Even in ancient times, societies weren’t quite sure how to handle the elderly among them. As Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller said in her Yom Kippur sermon last month, “We live in a world where becoming an elder feels like a mixed blessing: Who wants to be an elder?”

But more than ever before in human history, the elderly population is growing. Largely the result of medical advances, people are living considerably longer, often well into their 80s, 90s and even 100s, so that what used to be retirement age — 65 — is now merely middle life. The issue is particularly pressing now, as the so-called boomer generation reaches that plateau, and approximately 70 million Americans between the ages of 45 and 65 will have to invent new futures for themselves. “Retiring retirement,” is how the writer Patricia Marx described the phenomenon in an article this week in The New Yorker. She also wryly pointed out that what cemented retirement age at 65 was the Social Security Act of 1935, when the average life expectancy was 61. 

Faced with health and vitality decades beyond what they might have imagined in their 20s, many boomers are seeking “encore” chapters. And particularly in the wake of the recent economic downturn, many have either been laid off or seen their 401(k)s dwindle. “[T]oday, considering that 56 percent of workers have less than $25,000 in retirement savings, and that the average life expectancy of a 65-year-old man and woman is 82 and 85, respectively, can any of us really afford to call it quits?” Marx wrote. Retirement is officially out; midlife today is simply a time to recalibrate and resume.

Lansing was nearing the end of her reportedly $25 million contract at Paramount when she began fretting about her future. Having started her career as an actress, she charted an illustrious course through Hollywood, ascending the ranks from script reader at MGM (in her 20s) to president of production at 20th Century Fox (30s) to CEO of Paramount Pictures (late 40s). During a stint as an independent producer, she shepherded hits like “Fatal Attraction,” “School Ties” and “Indecent Proposal.” At Paramount, she added to the studio’s legendary library with the Oscar-winning movies “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart” and, most famously, in 1997, “Titanic,” which remains one of the top-grossing films of all time. 

A dream accomplished, however, is a dream that has expired. “I started to go, ‘Am I going to die at my desk?’ ” Lansing recalled. She began talking to family and friends “endlessly,” she said, about a career change. “I started to feel that if I brought it up one more time … [p]eople were, like, so bored with it,” she said. “You start to feel like a whiner. And, of course, people think you’re a little nuts because everything’s going so well,” she added, “but it’s hard to explain internal angst.”

Lansing ended up on a therapist’s couch — for years. “I talked a lot about it, and [my therapist] kept saying to me, ‘You’re always afraid to leave, but whenever you’ve left, it’s always been better.’ ” The thinly veiled reference was to her first marriage, to then-medical student Michael Brownstein, whom she married when she was a tender 19. They lasted just six years. After that, Lansing remained single until 47, when, in July 1991, she married the Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, whose credits include “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” (and whom she calls “Billy”) in Barbados. But by and large, for as long as she could remember, she said, her career in entertainment had been the central driving force in her life, and she was afraid of what life would be like without it.

At one point she even sought the counsel of former President Jimmy Carter. She described the experience in an essay for the book “My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them.” By her own account, when she traveled to Atlanta to meet Carter for the first time, “I thought I would go and ask him questions like, ‘Is it stupid to stop your job when, to the outside world, it looks so great?’ ” she wrote, “or, ‘Is it silly to give up a career in the movie industry to pursue a life of public service … am I making a mistake?”

Despite her worries, she had a nagging desire to “give back,” which guided her thinking. “I was a little luckier than most, because I knew that I wanted to establish a foundation, and I knew I didn’t have economic problems, which is, like, less than 1 percent — I hate that word. But the guts to leap? You know, to just do it? It takes a lot of guts because you’re ripping your life and changing it.”

While Lansing certainly didn’t have to worry about money — in addition to that $25 million, she is well invested in technology companies, including Qualcomm and ReadD, as well as the Dole Food Co., and, according to a report at Forbes.com, she earned nearly $750,000 in stock fees and other compensation in 2011 alone. But her own affluence actually helped steer her course. After discovering the think tank Civic Ventures, a nonprofit devoted to “boomers, work and social purpose,” according to its Web site, she became fully immersed in the movement to promote encore careers. “I started to get totally obsessed with it,” Lansing said. 

In 2005, she established the Sherry Lansing Foundation. Its initial mission was twofold, combining Lansing’s foremost passions: cancer research and public education. In 1984, Lansing lost her 64-year-old mother to ovarian cancer, and, in 2008, she helped co-found the nonprofit StandUp2Cancer, along with industry colleagues including Katie Couric, who lost her husband to colon cancer, and the late Laura Ziskin, producer of the “Spider-Man” movies, who would die of breast cancer in 2011. 

Also a former schoolteacher — Lansing taught at Theodore Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles before entering the movie business — she was interested in promoting public education. In 1999, she was appointed to the University of California Board of Regents, a term former Gov. Schwarzenegger renewed in 2010, and she is currently serving as its chair. There, she learned that more than 100,000 California math and science teachers faced pending retirement — one-third of the teaching workforce — and that schools throughout the state likely would need to hire more than 30,000 new teachers over the next decade. So, in 2007, she launched the EnCorps Teachers Program, which trains retired professionals in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math for encore teaching careers (“the flip of Teach for America,” she said). But Lansing also quickly realized she had only scratched the surface; an iceberg stalked underneath.


Posters from a sampling of films completed during Lansing’s tenure at Paramount.

“Wake uuup,” the actor James Franco prods in an ad spot for Empowered Careers, a new 12-month certificate program set to launch on Oct. 15 as part of the UCLA Extension continuing education program (empowered.com). Lansing conceived of Empowered as a way of bringing the EnCorps concept to the broader economy. Co-founded with the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Steve Poizner, a former California insurance commissioner and veteran high-tech entrepreneur, Empowered Careers aims to close the skills gap currently prohibiting many boomers from re-entering the workforce.

A partnership that joins the entertainment, education and high-tech industries, Empowered Careers launched in June 2011 with $15 million in venture capital. They set up shop in Silicon Valley and hired cutting-edge technology engineers, treating the initiative not simply as a business enterprise but as a “social movement,” with hopes it would grow into a global force for encouraging and facilitating adult productivity.

“We’re trying to change the culture of the country,” Poizner, 55, said in an interview from Empowered headquarters in Silicon Valley. “Age discrimination is a civil rights issue.” This marks something of a second career for Poizner, who is best known as a co-founder of SnapTrack, which developed a GPS tracking device for cellphones that was sold to the technology giant Qualcomm for $1 billion. With his own financial health seemingly secure, Poizner is most stoked about realizing the potential of boomer talent. 

“There are over 3 million job openings today, but boomers don’t have the right skills for the needs of these jobs. And it is imperative to the country that we find a way for boomers to stay economically viable,” Poizner said.

To that end, Empowered identified those sectors of the American economy in which jobs are currently available and will offer practical education (no theory of economics here) in select major areas, including health care management, patient advocacy, marketing and new media, as well as college admissions counseling — areas in which boomers’ wisdom and life experience would be an asset.

“We’re not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Poizner said. “If you or your mom or your grandmother had a health care crisis, do you want to deal with someone 25 years old, right out of school? Or would you like to deal with someone 55 years old, with lots of life experience, whose interpersonal skills are more developed?”

This sensitivity was applied to almost every area of Empowered’s curriculum. The 12-month program, an online, virtual classroom entirely designed for the iPad, was conceived to benefit busy adults, who may already be managing current jobs and a hectic home life. Coursework is meant to be various and user-friendly so that adults can do their homework in the carpool line. Tuition for the year is an affordable $6,740, and comes with personalized, one-on-one career counseling. Although they are capping enrollment for the first quarter at “a couple hundred,” Poizner said he hopes to reach “tens of thousands” in the future. “We really won’t have much of an impact if we can only help a few people. We want to be able to do this at scale,” he said.

Although Empowered was established as a for-profit company, Lansing is adamant that she will not benefit personally. At a time when the UC system is subsumed by “the worst budget crunch in the entire world,” as she put it, she has vowed to reinvest her share of the profits to support financial aid and scholarships. But really, she is hoping the venture will become so successful, its proceeds might boost the entire UC system (she compared its potential to that of the education giant University of Phoenix, a nearly $4 billion industry, albeit not without its share of controversy). “If we could just be a teeny portion of that industry,” she said wishfully. “We want this to be our Gatorade,” she added, offering a different analogy to the electrolyte-rich drink developed at the University of Florida, which has earned the university more than $150 million.

Lansing doesn’t have Gatorade, but she has something better: Hollywood. And for its part, CAA contributed a handful of clients, including Pierce Brosnan, Geena Davis, Sally Field, James Franco, James Gandolfini and Cuba Gooding Jr. — who appear in an ad spot promoting the program. Nothing like a bunch of Hollywood stars coaxing you to “wake up,” stop “waiting for a sign,” “reinvent yourself!” “You know this won’t happen magically,” James Gandolfini warns in his best Tony Soprano voice.

Lansing’s latest, and in many ways, grandest, passion project is part of the reason she calls her “third act” “the happiest time in my life.” 

Almost the moment she left the movie business, she said, she felt “like a giddy schoolgirl who had just graduated from college.” For the first time in her life, she had time to relax, time for “more moments of intimacy” and the ability to travel and say, “I like it here; let’s stay one more day.”

But even as she has evolved, she hasn’t really slowed. And, in many ways, the significance of her current work even seems to dwarf her former accomplishments. It’s her life that’s become the epic movie.

“Sherry never thinks about it as being successful,” Rob Friedman, co-chairman of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said. “She just thinks about achieving and getting stuff done, and when your thoughts are really purely about getting stuff done, it takes a lot of the danger out of what you’re doing, which allows you to do more and more and strive for bigger and better. And there’s nobody better at that than Sherry. She could have chosen to do anything she wanted — including probably running for president,” he said.

Even so, the flood of new meaning and more private time has not diminished her view of her Hollywood past. “I don’t regret at all those long, hard days at the office,” she said. “I loved them. But then there comes a time when you don’t. I don’t regret missing a party or being on the phone six hours a day on vacation, because at that time in my life, that was more important to me.”

Nor does she regret never having children of her own. “This is maybe an unpopular thing to say, but I made the choices in life that I am completely 100 percent comfortable with, and I knew that I wanted a career, and that I could not achieve the success that I achieved and also be the kind of mother I wanted to be.” Nevertheless, Lansing inherited two stepchildren with her marriage to Friedkin. “I’m not saying other people can’t do it,” she added, “but I would have felt pulled in all different directions. I could only ‘have it all’ sequentially.”

Her almost unnerving confidence in her choices is, perhaps, an extension of temperament. Colleagues say she is the opposite of the conquering female stereotype, someone who clawed her way to the top and smashed ceilings. “She is very kind, very calm, very focused, obviously brilliant,” De Line said. “In this business, people are spinning in all kinds of different directions, you’re working with a lot of creative types, and they’re very emotional and have a lot invested in their projects, and Sherry, in her very rational, very considered way, was always able to take someone in hand and say ‘I’m going to help guide you and help you achieve the goals that we all want to achieve.’ She’s brilliant at that. Probably the best I’ve ever seen.”

Lansing’s friend Saban, added: “Sherry represents something unique among women, especially in the town we live in. She is one of those women who will not hold another woman down; she will raise you up. And not every woman is helping other women get up in the world. I think Madeleine Albright said, ‘There should be a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’ ”

Lansing might say it’s the Jewish girl in her that’s speaking. As producer Mike Tollin said about working with her: “You just got a sense this was a good woman whose values were in the right place.” Certainly in conversation, her Jewishness looms large. And don’t get her started on Israel: “I don’t even know words to describe how important it is! I can’t imagine anything more important,” she said unequivocally. 

Back in 2006, when Jimmy Carter published his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” Lansing sat on the board of the Carter Center, a human rights organization. “I really struggled with Carter’s book,” she recalled. “I kind of went apoplectic.” Although she considered resigning, she tried to think of the most Jewish thing to do. “One of the points he makes in the book is that if you criticize Israel to a Jew, they won’t talk to you.” That really bugged her. So as a statement of defiance, she decided to stay, and in fervid Lansing fashion, told the former president that, whenever asked, she would publicly disagree with him and spend the rest of her life trying to change his mind.

Lansing foists a great deal of responsibility upon herself, almost relentlessly. Neurotically? Does she ever rest? Does she ever watch a movie? What does she do when she isn’t trying to cure cancer, educate boomers and save the UC system from financial ruin?

She laughs. And even before you finish the question, she has an answer.

“What brings you the most joy is a quiet moment in your life with the people you love,” she explained. “A quiet meal, a quiet walk, you know, hugging. There’s just no comparison.”

Except … “And then when I’m involved in a program that changes people’s lives, and you feel you’ve made a difference? That gives me the greatest joy in the entire world.”


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