Paramount Pictures, the 1990s, and the rise of the ‘Sherry movie’

Paramount Pictures gate
Share this Article:

Sherry Lansing was one of the most powerful women in Hollywood in the 1990s – and she used that power to make films the rest of town was ignoring.

On September 24th 1999, Paramount Pictures released the latest in a line of its run of mid-priced thrillers into US cinemas. The movie this time was Double Jeopardy, starring Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones. It arrived months after The Matrix had lobbed a grenade into the world of blockbuster cinema, and followed a summer where franchise films such as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me had hit big.

But Double Jeopardy hit big too. Paramount had invested $40m in the film, and was rewarded by a $177m box office take (at a point where that was regarded as very sizeable sum in the movies). Sure, the critics didn’t like it much, but audiences kept it at the top of the US box office for three weeks, holding off films such as Three Kings and Harrison Ford vehicle Random Hearts.

As it turned out, Double Jeopardy would mark the commercial peak of a strategy followed by Paramount’s then boss Sherry Lansing. She was one of two women running Hollywood studios in the 1990s – along with Amy Pascal, who ascended to the top job at Sony. Yet she still oversaw an industry that rarely put women in the lead roles of its films, yet alone its commercial ones.

And as for targeting thrillers at women? Well, that was a rarity too.

Lansing was determined to do something about that. Until she took over at the top of Paramount, there wasn’t a single Hollywood studio that was regularly developing films that had women at their heart. Furthermore, Lansing was looking for mid-range bets rather than big, expensive tentpole pictures. And her two ideals combined in a way that led to what’s known in Hollywood to this day as the ‘Sherry movie’.

“Nobody was making movies for women, in particular women over 25”, she noted in her biography. And promptly started doing something about it.

Lansing landed the Paramount job in 1991, but it still took time to get projects moving, and get her slate of movies going. Just how much influence she had over 1993’s The Temp, for instance, is unclear. But it was an early forerunner to the template she’d follow.

The Temp was a revenge thriller of sorts, one that played just as strongly to women as it did men. The film actually owed more to one of Lansing’s earlier hits as producer – Fatal Attraction – with this time a temp played by Lara Flynn Boyle wreaking havoc on the life of her boss, played by Timothy Hutton.

Progressive the film wasn’t, though (Flynn Boyle’s title character is very much the antagonist, and we’re not talking The Last Seduction here), and it was also hampered by having a new ending shot just weeks before its release. The $15m thriller would gross just $6.4m at the box office. Likewise, the same year’s Sliver, with Sharon Stone in the lead, would struggle to get much footing, and would be seen primarily as an attempt by the studio to have its own Basic Instinct (given that screenwriter Joe Ezterhas had penned both films). Savage reviews were offset by the profitable but underwhelming $123m gross.

Paramount was still chalking up hits with other thrillers, though – The Firm and Indecent Proposal most notably – but perhaps the turning point for what came to be known as the Sherry movie would be 1997’s Kiss The Girls.

An adaptation of the novel by James Patterson, the film starred Morgan Freeman, and crucially gave a co-starring role to Ashley Judd. Costing just shy of $30m to make, the film grossed a little north of $60m, and enjoyed a good life on DVD too. But the pivotal ingredient was Judd. She was plucked from near-obscurity at the time for the co-lead role, and Lansing was heavily involved with the casting. In fact, she was insistent that she vetted the candidates for the role. The film’s poster, meanwhile – whilst giving Morgan Freeman top billing – have Judd equally prominent space. It would prove to be her commercial breakthrough role. 

As it turned out, off the back of Kiss The Girls’ success, Lansing was keen to work with Judd again. The pair would thus work on a run of movies, primarily revenge thrillers, that broke through at the box office. The aforementioned Double Jeopardy was next, in 1999, followed by High Crimes in 2002 and Twisted in 2004. Whilst the box office would ultimately dwindle, Judd’s would 

Separately, Lansing also pursued sort-of Kiss The Girls sequel Along Came A Spider, albeit with Monica Potter co-starring rather than Judd. Katie Holmes meanwhile, would take the lead for 2002’s Abandon.

Few of these films utterly set the box office alight, but most – especially in the DVD era – were profitable, and crucially, nobody else was making them.

Not that Lansing was purely focused on thrillers. On her watch, movies such as The First Wives Club, not only got through the system, but got proper studio support. Likewise the underrated Julia Stiles-headlined hit Save The Last Dance (that came via MTV), the remake of The Stepford Wives, Kim Basinger headlining Bless The Child, Britney Spears’ movie debut in Crossroads, and the major female-led blockbuster, Tomb Raider.

And the small matter of Mean Girls, too.

Lansing made these films part of a primarily fairly convention slate of films, by the standards of 1990s and 2000s Hollywood. But that was arguably why so many of them worked. Just because lots of other studios were paying lip service at best to the idea that – shock – women wanted to go to the cinema too, and perhaps not just watch romcoms, Lansing absolutely wasn’t. She was seeking out commercial projects, she was making sure opportunity was there, and her hit rate for a long time was strong.

It helped too that Paramount at the time was resisting $100m blockbusters, and was the one studio head actively targeting mid-priced fare. It made the kind of thrillers that Lansing would pursue sound commercial bets.

Even on some of the biggest successes, she drove hard bargains. She brought the budget of Forrest Gump right down to $55m, for instance, including a last-minute slice to the cost of it. She shared risk too, and made smart co-production investments in both Titanic and Braveheart. And her commercial acumen meant she scored hits with a range of films such as Mission: Impossible, The First Wives Club, In & Out, The General’s Daughter and Election (pictured, which failed commercially at the time, but has grown in popularity since), to name just a handful. 


Paramount’s exposure on each of these was comparably limited, and she sought films with commercial potential, that wouldn’t break the bank. And if they would break the bank, to bring in a partner to shoulder the risk with the studio. One complaint in modern cinema is that mid-priced movies have gone, as studios just chase the juggernauts. At Paramount, 25 years ago, it was very different.

Lansing’s incredible run couldn’t go on forever, of course. Towards the end of her Paramount time, the business was shifting. The commercial gambles were getting bigger, as the rewards for a hit movie shot through the roof. The Harry Potter and the Lord Of The Rings films were proving gigantic successes. Sony’s first Spider-Man film was demonstrating a new high commercial bar for superhero films. And on the animation side, the same was true for DreamWorks’ Shrek and Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

What these projects have in common is that they wouldn’t have found a home at the more frugal Paramount. The studio had a foot in the animation business, but not a big one. And few agents would take major, expensive projects to the studio, knowing that bold gambles weren’t, for a long time, what it was looking for.

It was only towards the end of her Paramount time that Lansing started to change this. Much noise was made about the $100m+ bill for its Christmas 2004 release, Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, starring Jim Carrey. The press were invited onto the set early to see how lavish a production it was, and to get the word out to agents that Paramount was now writing bigger cheques. But Lansing, ultimately, was eyeing the exit door, after what proved to be one of the longest and most successful studio head runs in modern history (Amy Pascal one of the others).

By the time Lemony Snicket came out – and proved to be a modest success, against its budget – Lansing had moved on to the next stage of her life (unlikely many exiting studio heads, she didn’t take a producing deal). But the projects she left behind continued to demonstrate her desire to make films for women, with women. Notably, 2005’s Aeon Flux, that gave Charlize Theron the lead role, with Karyn Kusama behind the camera.

Hollywood, of course, has transformed in the past decade. Studios are now making fewer movies each, and rather than gambling on a broad slate, they zero in on a smaller number of much bigger movies. The Disney model is what most of them are chasing. But there’s still, even among all the sequels and franchises, room for a Sherry movie.

Stacy Snider was heading up DreamWorks Pictures from 2006 – as well as stints at the top of Universal and 20th Century Fox – and she openly admitted that the decision to press ahead with films such as Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train was part of Lansing’s lasting legacy. Female-driven thrillers such as Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock can also arguably be traced back to the path that Lansing cleared.

That’s not to say these films wouldn’t have happened at some point: Hollywood at some point was surely going to wake up what Lansing believed in decades prior. Yet without question, Lansing left quite a legacy, and the films she brought to a commercial slate of pictures had influence. Behind the scenes too, she promoted and gave opportunities to women, who in turn have risen up the ranks. Furthermore, that run of successful thrillers may have eventually petered out, but it was an enviable collection, with many of the films successful ongoing catalogue titles. 

Studio thrillers may be a bit of an endangered species right now, but it’s telling that the female-driven films made on Lansing’s watch remain a touchpoint. And it’s telling too that in Hollywood circles, the phrase ‘Sherry movie’ is still spoken…

One last thing

Before she took on the top job at Paramount, Sherry Lansing had already shown a sure touch for developing and bringing to the screen popular thrillers. Fatal Attraction was the big hit, but successes such as The Accused (that won Jodie Foster her first Oscar) and Black Rain were amongst the movies she produced and fought for. 

When she left the top job at Paramount in 2004 – after over a decade in charge – she refocused her energies on her foundation, that has raised tens of millions of dollars for cancer research. You can find more on that at

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

More like this