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Lassoing the stars to support cancer research

Producer Laura Ziskin, herself a breast cancer patient, forms a roster of the renowned for a TV fundraiser tonight.

September 05, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

As a movie producer, Laura Ziskin has wrestled with studio executives, stars and lawyers. As a late-stage breast cancer patient, the "Spider-Man" maker has faced a far more perilous foe, and now Ziskin intends to do to malignant cells what she has done to box-office records: smash them.

Ziskin, who also has produced two Academy Award broadcasts, is the driving creative force behind "Stand Up to Cancer," a star-filled one-hour benefit that will be broadcast commercial-free on ABC, CBS and NBC tonight at 8.

Like any smart producer with some very big names in her Outlook contacts, Ziskin reached out to many people she had worked with in Hollywood.

"We called up everyone we could," she says. Ziskin persuaded David Fincher ("Zodiac") to direct a coming attractions trailer to promote the live TV special and got film and TV producer James L. Brooks to assemble a short "Simpsons" cartoon for the show about Homer having a colonoscopy. The organization's website was designed by the same Sony team that conceived "Spider-Man's" online marketing.

Stars scheduled to appear in the broadcast include Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron, Meryl Streep, Forest Whitaker, Christina Applegate, Josh Brolin and Hilary Swank, among many others. The organization's new song, "Just Stand Up," was released Tuesday on iTunes and features more than a dozen top female singers -- including Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge, who will join in performing the song during the telecast.

"Every single person who comes on our stage can tell you what their connection to cancer is," Ziskin says.

Not long after she was diagnosed with cancer, Ziskin was producing 2007's Academy Awards, in which "An Inconvenient Truth" won the documentary feature Oscar. "I saw the power that that movie had in changing the conversation," the 58-year-old Ziskin says. "I was mad, and it got me thinking about a documentary. I wanted to do something that would get people talking and make it a national priority."

What Ziskin says angered her in particular was that far more money is spent on cancer treatment than research, even as 1,500 Americans die from the disease every day. Furthermore, she says, research is divided among so many scientists and fields "and there is no mandate or cultural pressure for them to collaborate."

Having undergone some of the most toxic forms of chemotherapy, Ziskin believes there has to be a better way. "The process of treating cancer has been a carpet-bombing technique: Let's kill all the bad things in the body, and hope the patient survives," she says. "I'm sure that I've lived longer than had I not had chemotherapy, but it has not fully solved my problems."

Ziskin won't say how much she hopes the benefit will raise (Jerry Lewis' 22-hour telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. raised $65 million). Stand Up to Cancer plans to spend 70% of its revenues on cancer research across disciplines and institutions, 20% for innovative inquiries, and 10% for an endowment to keep the organization running.

"We're not going to cure cancer in a television show," Ziskin says, "but I do believe we can solve this. We don't have to cure cancer or eradicate it. But we have to make it what it can be -- a manageable disease, like diabetes."


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