Teddy Zee | “If you don’t buy the ticket, you cannot expect to win the lottery”
Cornell on full scholarship. Harvard Business School graduate. Goldsea’s “120 Most Inspiring Asian Americans of All Time.” CAPE board member. Producer ofPursuit of Happyness, Saving Face, Hitch…intimidated yet? Quite. But look past these extremely well-deserved accolades, Teddy Zee is the epitome of modesty, selflessness, and is just plain cool—black Prius-driving, P90X-doing, picture-tweeting cool. You just have to roll that way as one of the most admired role models in the industry and a passionate advocate of Asian Americans in entertainment, bringing to life countless projects and giving unparalleled opportunities to Asian American talent. As if Teddy had anymore time on his hands, he is also a devoted supporter of non-profits, particularly the Center for the Pacific Asian Family (CPAF). Be sure to support this wonderful organization and Teddy’s enormous efforts by voting to help them win a Toyota Sienna minivan on Friday, August 12, 3am-9am PST! www.votecpaf.org
- What takes up most of your time right now: I have A.D.D. and see myself as a heat seeking missile. So it could be any number of things. I am a serial multi-tasker.
- Guilty Pleasure: Organic Sea Salt Kettle Potato Chips.
- Your comfort food: French fries; but I now on to really fresh, organic and green foods.
- Relationship Status: Julia Lee
- Pet Peeve: Religious folk, including Christians who are intolerant of those that don’t agree with their beliefs; Americans who believe freedom of speech should only be for people who agree with their thinking. It comes down to hypocrisy and intolerance.
- The one constant thing in your life: Curiosity
- Last film that made you cry: Sunny(Korean film)
- Can you speak/read/write Chinese: Maybe (no), no, no. The truth is, I grew up speaking Shanghainese and at an elementary level because I only spoke it at home with my parents. When my mother died in ’83, I had no occasion to continue using it. I have the skill level of a 2 year old.
- If you weren’t a producer, you’d be: I would be a preschool teacher. When I was at Harvard Business School, we all took this aptitude test where they measure what your interests are and what professions share those interests. Most of the class had lawyer, consultant, doctor. Mine turned out to be preschool teacher. Oddly enough, I really love teaching and being around little kids.
- Fun Fact: I completed P90X in 100 days and once did 38 yoga classes in 35 days.
- Funner Fact: When I was in junior high, I sang in the school chorus and made all-county choir. Then my voice changed and I went from a soprano to…this voice, and now children cry when they hear me sing.
OA: As a producer, you have a vision, and you must guide the script towards the right direction. In what ways are you involved in the creative process, and how do you know what direction to take a script?
TZ: Part of being a producer is very much a collaborative process. It’s usually not completely my vision. If it starts with a book or other source of material, that really informs you of what that vision may be. Or if it’s a writer’s idea, it’s about bringing out the best from their vision. Ultimately, it’s about bringing out all the potential in the talent; giving them the right encouragement and tools to be their best.
OA: You’ve been the driving force behind one award-winning box office success after another. Is there a secret Teddy Zee formula you’ve developed, or what gives you the confidence to move forward with a film?
TZ: A successful film has many parents, a box office flop is an orphan. You know a film is ready because the market dictates it. It’s ready when you get a director, a star, and a studio to say yes; when you get the financing for it. It’s never me, it’s all the factors around me. It takes a long, long time. Put lots of eggs in your baskets.
OA: Many people don’t know, but a great extent of work takes place before the film ever reaches pre-production. What is the source of funding prior to a film being green lit? Walk us through the stages of funding from development to post production.
TZ: In the development process, the money is always the riskiest. Development itself is such a risky business. It’s akin to drilling for oil wells. How many wells do you have to drill to hit something that isn’t dry? How many of those wells turns out to be the gusher, big one? It takes a skilled geologist to determine where to drill and who’s going to help you do the drilling. Even with the studios, the ratio of films that get made out of the films that get purchased or developed could be 1 in 15 or 1 in 20. Sometimes you get lucky and the first draft looks like a movie. Or sometimes scripts have to be developed for years and years. When you’re looking at the credits, you see a name next to “Written By” and “Story By,” but it’s very rare that there was only one writer. Someone comes up with the story, someone writes the spec script, a bunch of different writers will try rewrites, then someone else gets brought in by the studio, and someone else works with the actor on last minute polishing. Script doctors come in for a week and make a million dollars. You’re willing to spend that money because you know the movie is getting made. But it’s really hard to spend money on something you don’t know will ever see the light of day.
OA: Hollywood vs. independent filmmaking: This seems like an overly simple yet overly complicated question, but how do you make good Hollywood films? There seems to be a difficult gap to bridge between expensive effects and spectacular action vs. good storytelling.
TZ: The good Hollywood films have great storytelling. There may just be bigger stars attached. What we’re seeing with Hollywood films is they are starting to feel a little familiar and franchises become sequelized, getting exploited over and over again. We feel like there’s not a lot of original product. That’s because there’s so much money going into these projects, the studios want insurance: whatever is easily marketable and has a proven track record. It’s so easy to demean Hollywood for the big movies saying “it’s not art.” You don’t know how many independent films get made that aren’t good. But we are fortunate to see things like The King’s Speech.
OA: Is there one avenue you prefer more than the other?
TZ: It’s a business. When you feel there’s a perfect blend of business and art, that’s the best.
OA: Of all people to discuss the Asian American community with, you are our guy: one of Goldsea’s “120 Most Inspiring Asian Americans of All Time,” producer and host of Dim Sum with Teddy Zee, CAPE board member, and the list goes on all the way to your efforts to create dynamic roles for Asian American actors. So, how much progress have we made in this industry, and what can we do as a community to best move forward in this diversity shift?
TZ: I don’t think we’ve made that much progress as Asian Americans. One of the biggest things is we as Asian Americans don’t act as a group or in concert. We’re not feeling a need to support Asian American artists. I’d like it to be different but it’s not the case. When Asian Americans go out to the movies, they’re saying, “If I’m spending $12, I’d like to see what’s hot.” They’re not saying, “I want to see someone who looks like me.” There are strides in front of the camera on TV. But in film, not so much. John Chu and Justin Lin as directors—great. But they’re the exceptions, not the rules. One sure way of not having a career in entertainment is focusing on the Asian American film genre. I call it the “ghetto”—lower cost, poor quality, and the themes we write about are the same things over and over. Americans truthfully don’t care about the Asian American struggle. Asians in Asia don’t care. It’s hard for other Asian Americans to care about it, because they’re not showing up to those movies (other than the film festival circuit). Commercial distribution is hard. I’ve made two Asian American films, and I’ll be hard pressed to go a third time unless it’s something really original.
OA: On the one hand, we’re encouraged to embrace ourselves as Asian Americans and join organizations to support one another. On the other hand, we shouldn’t wear Asian American as our name badge. How do you reconcile these equally valid but seemingly contradictory points?
TZ: The beauty is we don’t have to. The first thing they see when we walk in a room is Asian Asian Asian. If you think of yourself as Asian, you’re dead. You have to think of yourself as an individual, as a person with a unique point of view. Otherwise, we’ll never get past stereotypes. A lawyer asked my advice: she wanted to stand up for Asian American issues at her law firm as a lowly associate. My thought was, the best you can do for the Asian American community is to be as successful as you can be, accumulate goodwill, equity, and power, and you will have the ability to make a big difference when you do help out.
OA: How do you feel about the overwhelming response to Alexandra Wallace?
TZ: It’s great. When we walk into a room, we know what people are thinking. She did us a favor by saying it out loud. We then were able to express ourselves as individuals and it gave Asian American YouTubers an issue to respond to. There were some great responses. The big problem is when our community has come out in the past, the mainstream community has said, they’re so sensitive. Asians get pissed off about everything. But the response we got out of the Alex incident is wild and humorous instead of overly sensitive.
OA: What do you have to say about films like The Last Air Bender, Dragon Ball Z, 21, and Akira?
TZ: I thought 21 was a terrific film. Rather than looking at the glass as half empty, it’s half full. Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira were fantastic in the film. We had two Asian American actors get visible, important roles in a major studio release, and it helped their careers go forward. Liza was recently in a Fox sitcom called Traffic and the film Crazy, Stupid, Love. She’s terrific. And Aaron is doing films—mainstream films and not just Asian American films. I see that as a victory. As for the other films you mentioned, truthfully, if I were the producer, I’d be in a tough spot trying to balance concerns for our community with commerce and standing up to the studios. But I think a lot of those films failed on many levels; not just casting. You have to make really great films; then you have to make great films that try to be authentic. Part of that authenticity comes from what you put in it and part of it from scripts. Am I happy they failed? No, but I am glad they’re not rewarded for being inauthentic.
OA: China and Asia’s entertainment industries are just starting to bloom. As an enthusiastic advocate of linking these emerging industries to Hollywood, how are you taking advantage of the lack of rigid rules overseas?
TZ: I do a lot of consulting in Asia for companies who want to bridge with Hollywood. I did a deal with Iron Man 2 and negotiated the remake rights of the Gossip Girls webseries, but we were outbid. Gossip Girls is the greatest influence on current Chinese fashion. But one problem with China is that there’s so much piracy with Bit Torrent. The Chinese Internet audiences see every popular American TV show within days of airing here.
OA: In another interview, you mentioned the Asian American “cultural pressure to assimilate and be less visible and vocal.” Applying this to your life—growing up with a traditional immigrant family and a mother with bound feet—how have your parents reacted to your bold career decisions?
TZ: My dad’s peak earning was $17,000 a year. For my parents, when you come from absolutely nothing and your son was able to attend Cornell and graduate on a full scholarship, and then go on to get an MBA from Harvard, that’s a complete win. Their lives were made because I accomplished something, as well as my two brothers and sister. All four of us attended graduate school, so it was a major accomplishment. So the fact that I got a job at NBC, a well-known company, and then Paramount, there were no objections. My parents got an opportunity to feel they accomplished something through their kids. On top of being a support system, they trusted me to go freely and choose what I wanted to do.
OA: You work so closely with writers—have you ever thought about writing a script of your own, or are there ideas swimming in your head that you would love to turn into a film?
TZ: It’s too hard. I really admire writers–just finishing a script is a feat. I do have an idea that I brought writers on board for, and they’re working on it. I am working with three sets of writings right now and have enormous respect for their diligence, talent and trust. They are doing something I cannot do.
OA: On top of multi-million dollar projects, you somehow still make time to do good on a grassroots level. In 2010, you helped produce a series of powerful, touching PSAs for CPAF (Center for the Pacific Asian Family). Do you have any upcoming personal projects we can look forward to?
TZ: I encouraged CPAF to apply for this Toyota program where they’re giving a vehicle away each day for 100 days to award a charity. They were chosen as one of 500 finalists competing for 100 cars for a 1 in 5 chance of winning. Between all the people who volunteered in 2010 for CPAF, we now have an army of friends and supporters. It’s not just me, it’s folks like Don Le, Adrian Zaw, George Wang, Nate Fu, Paolo Ongkeko, Steve Liu and many more. You can help CPAF and their mission to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault by voting for them on Friday, August 12 in the Toyota 100 Cars for Good app on Facebook (which requires you to approve the app before voting) at this link: www.votecpaf.org.
Also, I’m incredibly passionate about Kollaboration. I think what PK [Paul Kim, founder] came up with and Roy Choi continues is something that really deserves extra attention. The more I talk about my experiences, the more I see the need to support empowerment through entertainment. Thirdly, voter registration: Asian Americans are least likely to vote, yet according to the census, we grew by 30% as a population. If we use our social media capabilities, our network on UC campuses, club promotions, and if YouTube stars all got together, we could have an Asian American governor within the next 10 years.
OA: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your 30 years in this industry?
TZ: If you don’t buy the ticket, you cannot expect to win the lottery. Too many people talk about doing it but don’t end up actually doing it. Yes, there’s risk. But where there’s no risk, there’s no reward.
Interview by Julie Zhan
Photography by Melly Lee
Edited by Julie Zhan
Tags // asian american, CAPE, center for pacific asian family, chinese, coalition of asian pacifics in entertainment, CPAF, Dim Sum with Teddy Zee, hitch, kollaboration, life or something like it, Producer, pursuit of happyness, quantam quest, saving face, teddy zee, west 32nd
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