Almost two years to the day that Hollywood producer and Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) cofounder Laura Ziskin died in June 2011 of metastatic breast cancer (OT, 6/25/11), her dream of bringing the story of cancer to the public via television was officially unveiled last month.
The realization of that dream was formally announced at an event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which described the collaborative effort to transform the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD, into a six-hour PBS three-part documentary series titled CANCER: The Emperor of All Maladies. The film will be executive-produced by Ken Burns, who will also serve as the series’ creative consultant, and produced and directed by Barak Goodman.
ABC News Special Correspondent Katie Couric, a SU2C cofounder, moderated a discussion between Burns and Mukherjee about the project.
Also announced was the launching of a public outreach and educational grassroots campaign leading up to the airing of the documentary in the spring of 2015, which will involve PBS and “outreach partners” Stand Up and its scientific partner, the American Association for Cancer Research, as well as the American Cancer Society.
Since the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF) optioned the television and film rights for its Stand Up initiative at Ziskin's urging in December 2010, the SU2C team has been busy behind the scenes working with PBS station WETA to orchestrate the project, with the hope of stoking a continuing conversation about cancer via media and grassroots efforts.
Ziskin had told OT that prior to her executive producing of Stand Up’s first live telecast in September 2008 (as well as its second in 2010), she had envisioned producing a documentary about cancer and had been looking for the right materials.
When she read a review of Emperor in The New Yorker, she related, she knew that she wanted to read the book. SU2C then sought to obtain the rights, and Ziskin flew to New York to convince Mukherjee of the value of such a project. Although details of this part of the story have been reported in OT over the years, a parallel scenario was also evolving that fell into place only last month when final funding was secured for the documentary.
Much of this backstory involved elements of serendipity, personal contacts, and plain good old kismet, according to those interviewed for this article. These elements were not all that different from those that initially helped launch the Stand Up initiative five years ago.
Sharon Percy Rockefeller
In 2010, Sharon Percy Rockefeller read Emperor during her hospitalization at Johns Hopkins for follow-up surgery to her original diagnosis of and subsequent treatment for colon cancer in 2005. Rockefeller, wife of Senator John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and daughter of the late Senator Charles H. Percy of Illinois, has been the longtime President and CEO of WETA, the flagship public broadcasting station in Washington, DC, and production partner of all of Ken Burns’s documentaries.
Once she picked up the book, she continued reading and finished it by the time she left the hospital the next day, she said in a telephone interview. “I just adored the book. It made it clear to me what I was suffering from, how complex the disease was, and that it was not new and had been around since the mummies in Egypt.”
She noted that when she had initially approached Burns about the potential project he said he wasn’t interested since he was booked for the next 10 years with various other projects and grants. However, she tried again the next day, telling him that working on a cancer documentary might be therapeutic for the filmmaker who lost his mother to cancer when he was 11 years old.
“I asked what would be the best time for him to get involved, knowing that public television projects typically have a long timeline with all that is involved. I then called Sid and asked if I could meet with him to discuss something, without being specific. I wanted to let him know that public television could do justice to the breadth and depth of his book and provide information and educate millions and millions of people.”
When they got together, Mukherjee expressed interest but noted a complication -- Stand Up had already acquired the rights.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, PhD
Mukherjee said during a separate telephone interview that when he learned of the interest by PBS and Ken Burns, he thought it would be an incredible combination to have Laura Ziskin and Stand Up’s creative input, Burns’s vision, and PBS’s “remarkable authority.”
“I instantly thought that this was the right answer,” he said. “I had seen most of Ken’s films and was and am a great fan. Ken brings a kind of depth, authority, and passion to his projects, and can produce the most authoritative documentary on a subject.”
Pam Oas Williams, President of Laura Ziskin Productions and Executive Producer of SU2C’s In-house Production Team, will serve as executive producer of the documentary with Dalton Delan and David S. Thompson. “When Laura optioned it through Stand Up, she intended to produce it, but she was not a documentary filmmaker and knew we wanted to partner with the best. So when Sharon Rockefeller called and said that WETA and Ken Burns were interested, we knew it would be the right platform for our grassroots efforts,” Williams said.
A planning meeting took place in Washington, DC in April 2011 with WETA, Stand Up, and Murkherjee, and a kickoff meeting was scheduled for June 14, but Ziskin’s sudden death two days earlier devastated the team, according to Williams, who decided she would remain in Los Angeles to be with Ziskin’s family.
“But we just knew that Laura would want us to continue so [EIF Senior Vice President] Kathleen Lobb [who is also a Stand Up Cofounder] and Tom Chiodo [EIF Senior Vice President for Business Development] traveled down from New York for the meeting, and the project began.”
Ken Burns said that his interest in cancer began with his mother: “I couldn’t remember a moment when she wasn’t sick,” he said via telephone. He said Emperor was a phenomenal book and he thought PBS could provide the quality that such a complex subject deserved, but he also knew that money would have to be raised to adapt the book to a television documentary.
“About a year and a half ago Sid and I did not want to know who the underwriters were,” he said, noting they were concerned about pharmaceutical sponsors. “We are very grateful for public television’s complete separation of church and state, and the autonomy we will have on this project.”
The series will include history, science, and case studies, and part of it will be dedicated to new material covering research advances since the book’s original publication, Burns said.
He said that Mukherjee’s role would be similar to that of Shelby Foote, author of The Civil War: a Narrative, which served as a source for Burns’s 1990 PBS five-part documentary, The Civil War. He added that although Mukherjee had already been interviewed on camera it was too early to tell what would or would not be in the film, or if the number of planned episodes would be sufficient to cover the final program.
He also expressed hope that the depiction of the cancer story could help “light a fire in the minds of the public,” and help build a larger constituency supporting cancer research and awareness.
Chiodo said that financing for the project had been done in stages, and although the funding for the documentary itself was in place, there would be ongoing efforts to finance the vast outreach component.
“Given that the air date is two years out and there is much more that they would like to do in relation to an even more expansive outreach campaign, total project costs are not finalized yet,” he said.
The four sponsors for the series are Genentech, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, David H. Koch, and Siemens.
Koch is Executive Vice President and Board Member of Koch Industries, and a major philanthropist. He said during a telephone interview that he had contributed nearly $600 million to various cancer centers for both buildings and research, and that he was especially proud of his contributions to PBS’s NOVA series (produced by Boston’s WGHB), which were among his other diverse non-cancer charitable interests.
A prostate cancer survivor and self-proclaimed “prostate cancer crusader,” he noted that a prostate-specific antigen test helped detect his disease in 1992, and over the years he underwent radiation therapy, surgery, hormonal treatment, and drug treatment on a clinical trial that finally stabilized his disease several years ago. Following his diagnosis, his three brothers also had PSA tests and over subsequent years each developed prostate cancer.
He recalled that a few years ago Ken Burns wanted to meet him in New York: “I had given him some money for a documentary on an architect [Frank Lloyd Wright, 1998], and I’ve been a big fan of his documentaries forever. He knew about my funding NOVA and he told me about his various projects, including the one about cancer.”
Koch said that at the time Burns was not aware that Koch was a prostate cancer survivor, but that he too had become familiar with Emperor the book and thought it was a brilliant idea to make a film of it. He officially signed up as a sponsor about six months ago, he said.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) had been one of the first donors to Stand Up To Cancer and “when we were approached about this incredible book we were very interested from the beginning,” said Maurie Markman, MD, Senior Vice President of Clinical Affairs & National Director of Medical Oncology.
“This documentary is an amazing opportunity to educate and inform the public about cancer. CTCA stands for hope, and this is a story of tremendous hope and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
Genentech was also a donor to SU2C, and Geoffrey P. Teeter, Vice President of Corporate Relations, said the company had become aware of the film project about two years ago and signed on officially about a year and a half ago.
“We had an interest in the book when it came out,” he said, noting its mention of Dennis Slamon’s work and the development of Herceptin (which is made by the company). He said that Genentech has long been a supporter of a candid dialogue about cancer, and it was nice to be able to support a public dialogue about cancer on even a greater level through sponsorship of the documentary.
Gregory Sorensen, MD, CEO of Siemens Healthcare North America, said that more then ever scientific data show that technology can actually save lives in cancer and that by sponsoring the documentary Siemens could help the public get a better understanding about what cancer is, help demystify the disease, and have people do some things that could reduce their mortality risk.
He said that although the company was not a philanthropy, the film might help make some medical tests less frightening to patients and could be “the kind of mechanism to enable people to be empowered and take charge of their lives.”
Sorensen said when he first heard about the documentary last month it took him about “30 microseconds” to realize that it was something worth supporting.
Clinching the Siemens sponsorship meant that the transition from print to film would become a reality and made it possible to finally release news of the project to the public.