Director and producer
B orn March 3, 1950, in San Fernando Valley, CA; daughter of Jay Ziskin (a psychologist); married Julian Barry (divorced); partner of Alvin Sargent, 1991—; children: Julia Barry. Education: Graduated from University of Southern California film school, 1973.
Addresses: Office—Laura Ziskin Productions, 10202 W. Washington Blvd., Astaire Building, Culver City, CA 90232.
B egan writing screenplays for game shows and became a development executive; associate-producer, The Eyes of Laura Mars, 1978; produced Murphy’s Romance, 1985; served as executive producer for Pretty Woman, 1990; president, Fox 2000, 1994-99; formed Laura Ziskin Productions, 1999; produced 74th annual Academy Awards, 2002; produced 79th annual Academy Awards, 2007. Worked as producer or executive producer on various films, including What about Bob? 1991, As Good as It Gets, 1997, and the Spider-Man series, 2002, 2004, 2007.
Awards: SaturnAward for best single television presentation, for “Fail Safe” 2001; Israel Film Fest Visionary Award, 2003; David O. Selznick Award Achievement in theatrical motion pictures, the Producers Guild of America, 2005.
P roducer Laura Ziskin is best known for her romantic comedy Pretty Woman, which was her first film as an executive producer, and for the su-perhero movie Spider-Man and its sequels. Ziskin headed 20th Century-Fox’s new division Fox 2000 from 1994 to 1999, when she left to form her own company, Laura Ziskin Productions. In 2002, she became the first solo female producer of the Academy Awards.
A native Californian, Ziskin studied film at the University of Southern California, graduating in 1973. Her early career in Hollywood included writing scripts for The Dating Game, working as a typist, being an assistant to Barbra Streisand, and screening scripts for another producer. She worked as the associate-producer for her first film, The Eyes of Laura Mars, in 1978. In 1980, she tired of being an assistant. “I’m as smart as he is. Why am I not doing this for myself?” she quipped to an interviewer for People. Focusing on both career and family, she married Julian Barry and the couple had a child. Her devotion to raising her daughter convinced her to take some time off from her work, and compro- mise in both career and family allowed her to have both successfully. “When I made the decision to be a studio executive I was trying to decide whether to be a director. My decision ultimately was dictated by my role as a mother,” she explained in a Newsweek roundtable. “I directed a short film. I shot for six days. I left before my daughter got up in the morning, and I came home after she had gone to sleep. If I multiplied that by three months or five months of making a movie, I would miss five months of my child’s life, and I wasn’t willing to do that.”
When she started producing on her own, conventional wisdom was to aim movies at 17year-old boys, but Ziskin was determined to produce movies she wanted to watch. In 1990, she was the executive producer on the movie Pretty Woman, a romantic comedy about a corporate raider and a prostitute, which became the second-highest grossing film of the year. “You can make a movie that appeals to women and still do gigantic business,” she told People.
Studios noticed the successes of her movies. In 1994, she became the president of Fox 2000, a new movie division, and she chose to draw on novels for her inspiration. By 1996, the studio had optioned 30 novels. “People who write books generally spend years working out characters and plots. And when you start with good material you can attract the best talent for your picture,” she explained to Paul Nathan of Publishers Weekly.
In 1999, she left Fox to form her own production company. She was quickly offered a three-year contract with Columbia to produce pictures there. Under the new contract, she was the producer for all three Spider-Man movies, based on the Marvel Comics superhero. Producing Spider-Man was a turning point in her career; the concept for the story did not originate with Ziskin, as many of her films have. “I’d never tried anything with such big special effects or that overtly pop culture before,” she said in an interview in Hollywood Reporter. Working on that scale was career changing, but Ziskin acknowledged that the struggles a film goes through in production are the same whether the film has a million dollar budget or a hundred million.
In 2002, she produced the 74th Annual Academy Awards, which was fitting as her own films had landed ten Oscar nominations and won two Oscars. Directing the Oscars had been a lifelong dream. “They’re about honoring the best in our industry and giving those awards. That’s what’s important,” she told Barry Garron of Hollywood Reporter, noting that while she wanted to keep the program traditional, she intended to give it her own spin. The broadcast earned eight Emmy nominations, including one for best producer. But that she was the first woman to be a sole producer of the Academy Awards seemed unimportant to Ziskin. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. I think the fact that I’m a woman affects what I do in every way possible,” she quipped in Hollywood Reporter. “I think it’s for other people to say whether it means anything. If it means something to other women, then great.”
But the role of women in Hollywood is not a topic Ziskin neglects. She told Kathy A. McDonald of Daily Variety, “Women are now culture-makers. We make movies, which are arguably the most powerful medium ever known in the history of civilization.” She also expressed her concerns that women in Hollywood are not paid the same wages that men in similar positions receive. “I’m a card-carrying feminist, but I found [it] hard to be heard,” she explained in an interview for Hollywood Reporter. “I’d need to say something five times. We just have to be persistent.”
Ziskin herself has received many of the honors her male peers have earned over the years. In 2003, she was awarded the Israel Film Fest Visionary Award. The next year, she was honored with the Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Award for her body of work in feature films, placing her among previous recipients, including Stanley Kramer and Jerry Bruckheimer. In 2006, she was asked to repeat her role as producer for the 79th Annual Academy Awards.
Along with her many achievements in film, Ziskin is also a survivor of cancer. Her experiences with cancer have caused her to work toward demystify-ing the disease. “we have to talk about it, challenge it, fight it in every arena,” she said in her award speech at the Tribute to the Human Spirit Awards Dinner. Ziskin continues to strive for success in her career and her family. She lives with partner Alvin Sargent and works out of her offices in Culver City, California.
Daily Variety, September 20, 2002, p. A6; November 18, 2004, p. 21.
Hollywood Reporter, March 22, 2002, p. S-3; January 21, 2005, p. S-4; July 24, 2006, p. 8; December, 2006, p. 76; June 5, 2007, p. 18.
Newsweek, Summer 1998, p. 116.
People, Spring 1991, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, March 11, 1996, p. 24.
Variety, June 9, 2003, p. 59.
Hollywood.com, http://www.hollywood.com/celebrity/Laura_Ziskin/188847#fullBio (November 14, 2007).
—Alana Joli Abbott