Q&A: Laura Ziskin

4:52 PM PST 09/02/2008 by Leslie SImmons

Televised cancer benefit isn't just another production for this woman.

For the past seven years, producer Laura Ziskin has divided her time among some of Hollywood's most high-profile brands, including the "Spider-Man" franchise and producing the Academy Awards.

But now Ziskin is taking on a project that's larger than life -- and one that could very well save hers. Ziskin, who has cancer, is producing "Stand Up to Cancer," a star-studded, one-hour, commercial-free event airing Friday simultaneously on ABC, CBS and NBC. The goal is to raise money for groundbreaking cancer treatment and research.

Hollywood Reporter: How do you envision "Stand Up to Cancer" affecting the fight against the disease?

Ziskin: Like how "An Inconvenient Truth" tipped the conversation in this country about global warming, I want to tip the conversation about cancer. But that takes money and that takes will. It takes cancer becoming part of the national agenda.

THR: Do you feel that you have a responsibility to put this together because of the power you have in the industry?

Ziskin: Yes, because before I was diagnosed I didn't think about it. But then when I got diagnosed I met so many people who were dealing with it and had dealt with it. We work in this industry where we have the opportunity to reach a lot of people. We're not going to hurt anybody by doing this, and we may do some good.

THR: We've seen similar broadcasts like this for 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. How hard was it to convince the networks to take part in something that's commercial-free?

Ziskin: I think the logistics were hard, but I think the impulse was to want to do it. (NBC Universal CEO) Jeff Zucker is a cancer survivor. (Disney-ABC Television Group president) Anne Sweeney has cancer in her family. Everybody has been touched by it and recognizes that it's a good opportunity.

THR: What were some of the obstacles you've encountered in trying to put such a large-scale production together?

Ziskin: Someone asked earlier, is it bigger than the Oscars? And I said yes, because with the Academy Awards there's infrastructure in place. There's this institution that's done this show for 80 years. So as a producer you can move into that and there's a lot of infrastructure already there for you to utilize. This, literally, this is it. We're making the show from this room.

THR: As a female producer in Hollywood, did you notice a change in how people dealt with you after your diagnosis?

Ziskin: I look at ("Spider-Man" producer) Sony as my family and they were tremendously supportive, as one would expect them to be. I remember one doctor asking me if I wanted to use a pseudonym -- I was in the hospital for quite a long time -- and I said no. This is a part of me.

THR: Are you still undergoing treatment?

Ziskin: I'm on a certain kind of treatment and I'm sure I always will be. I'm hopeful that out of "Stand Up to Cancer" there will come the next stage of drugs that may be something that will keep my cancer at bay forever.

THR: What are the prospects for female execs rising through the ranks in Hollywood today?

Ziskin: Women aren't directors and they don't own studios. Women run studios, but there's no female equivalent to Rupert Murdoch, John Malone or Sumner Redstone. And there's no female equivalent to Steven Spielberg. It may be because of lifestyle choices. Your peak career-making years coincide with your peak baby-making years. And certain jobs are not conducive to that. You can be a producer and have children. It's very hard to be a director and have children. I can leave the set and pick up my kids, but as a director, you can't. The business is much harder than it used to be. Most of the movies I made early in my career I would not be able to get made today.

THR: Which of the movies you made wouldn't get made today?

Ziskin: All of them. "No Way Out," "To Die For," "The Doctor." Those movies wouldn't have been made today. "Pretty Woman," even that, an R-rated comedy, wouldn't happen. The mainstream movie business has become increasingly narrow.

THR: What's up with "Spider-Man 4?"

Ziskin: The only thing I would feel comfortable saying is I'm sure there will be one. There are different ideas about what it will be and how it will come together, but that's all I can say.

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