Lionsgate TV Head Sandra Stern Talks "What's Really Important in Life" at Taste for a Cure

Bryan Batt, Janie Bryant, Sandra Stern Taste for a Cure - Getty - H 2019
John Sciulli/Getty Images for UCLA

The executive received the 2019 Gil Nickel Humanitarian Award at the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center’s 24th annual Taste For a Cure fundraiser on Friday.

Lionsgate Television Group president Sandra Stern offered a bit of advice as she accepted the 2019 Gil Nickel Humanitarian Award at the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center’s 24th annual Taste For a Cure fundraiser: "If you ever need a wakeup call about what’s really important in life, please visit the Jonsson Center," Stern told the assembled crowd. "It’ll remind you there are people who work on real life-and-death issues every day. People who really are curing cancer."

Stern’s honor was the centerpiece of the annual event at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, where, prior to the gala, dinner attendees were treated to "A Culinary Journey Through Asia," a veritable eating trek during the cocktail hour curated by Helene An, the acclaimed matriarch of the An family restaurants, including Crustacean Beverly Hills.

The veteran TV exec accepted the honor with a dose of humility: "I’m no Mother Theresa," she told The Hollywood Reporter with a chuckle. "But It was a very, very big deal." She recalled how her father’s long service in the New York Housing Authority instilled her with an ethic of community service early on. "'Humanitarian' sounds very grand and it a very big word for something that is how I've tried to live my life, getting involved in causes, using whatever voice that I've been fortunate enough to have to help those people who maybe don't have a voice. And so it's an honor for me to have that looked upon. I'm used to being an executive and being seen in that context."

Cancer has struck close to home in Stern’s family: her mother died of the disease, her niece survived a terrifying childhood diagnosis seven years ago and in the past six months her younger sister began treatment after her own diagnosis. "I’ve seen what the devastation that that brings, not only physically to the person, but to the family, to the loved ones too. It affects everything," she said. 

She found herself "blown away" by the dedication of the caregivers she’s encountered – "the value that they place on every individual life" – and recently became an active supporter of the Jonsson Center. "UCLA is down the street. It's my alma mater. I teach there at the law school – it's a place that's close to me."

"l love Sandra Stern. I called her up and asked her to be our honoree," Dana Walden, a past honoree, former co-president of Fox and now five weeks into a new role as Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment chairman. "She is a phenomenal executive, a real leader in our industry. From where I stand, just seeing another powerful, strong woman who's leading a company through an incredibly dynamic time in our industry, she was a no-brainer."

"You need people like this who are so committed to it to give you the confidence it’s a disease that ultimately we'll be able to put an end to," said Gary Newman, Walden’s former co-president and fellow honoree and longtime colleague of Stern’s, of the Jonsson Center. His support of the center has led him to see just how possible finding a cure is. "They know so much more about it. There's so much more targeted in their treatment now than they used to be, where often the treatment was as devastating as the illness. And now they've got incredibly, incredibly sophisticated and nuanced strategies to deal with different types of cancer. So I don't think it's disappearing anytime soon, but their survival rates are all increasing."

"Do you remember the last president said we should be [to cancer] kind of like what NASA was in the 60s to the space of like should we take that on? And the answer is yes," said NBC Entertainment co-chairman Paul Telegdy. "And the answer is we – not me, I just make telly shows – but the people that work at UCLA and the enormous network of hospitals that they share their research with getting closer on a number of things again, which would have been near-certain death sentence."

Just five days after her retirement after a legendary 37-year stint as the head gymnastics coach at UCLA, Valorie Kondos Field took the stage, recalling her own 2014 breast cancer diagnosis, and how the Jonsson Center offered her a then-groundbreaking chemotherapy treatment developed there that dramatically increased her survival odds. 

"I was so excited to get this treatment, that going to my chemo, I called it my chemo-spa," Kondos Field noted, “because going to a spa, you go there to get better. And I was going to go there to get better. I was going to go somewhere that was going to give me more days."

The event, emceed by Stern’s friend, journalist and television host Soledad O’Brien, was also attended by Mad Men actor Bryan Batt and the show’s costume designer Janie Bryant, who shared a table, Orange Is the New Black actress Rebecca Knox, Survivor contestant Michael Yerger and Quibi’s alternative programming content lead Brian Tannenbaum, who presented his longtime Lionsgate colleague and mentor Stern with her award.

OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder closed out the evening with an acoustic performance of several of the hit songs he’s crafter, including "Counting Stars," "Apologize" and a hastily learned guitar version of the Jonas Brothers' "Sucker," which he produced. "If you don’t recognize any of them, I’d like to welcome you back from North Korea or wherever you’ve been," he joked of his pop hits’ recent ubiquity.

"Cancer is, to me, the devil manifested on earth," Tedder added. "I think it’s the absolute most shameless disease. I’ve been affected by it personally – I mean, everybody has been affected by it personally."