[HOLLYWOOD] Journey of Ironpond's Teddy Zee
- Hitch Teddy Zee and the Sundance Kids
Teddy Zee's Ironpond partners are Peter Shiao and Yantan Shi, General
Manager of the Shaolin Temple.
It's a big day for Teddy Zee. Four o'clock is closing time on a deal
that will infuse Ironpond, his new entertainment company, with
venture funding from an established Hollywood-Wall Street group. He's
munching and sipping between takes on the phone. His voice is
resonant, oozing relaxation and confidence, precision-paced with
judicious pauses and pin-point emphasis.
After 20 years in Hollywood Zee is, at age 49, his own boss. For
some in Hollywood that's a euphemism for being out of work. Not when
you're Teddy Zee, with producer credits on big-studio hits like
Hitch, the experience of being studio exec on Charlie's Angels, and
dirt still under the fingernails from babying acclaimed little films
like Saving Face. Not when you have the Asian contacts and the creds
to get projects like West 32nd Street funded under your own shingle.
And certainly not when you have investors about to bankroll some
serious new Beverly Hills offices and the credit line to greenlight
your own movie deals.
Still, as Zee sees it, being your own boss is like being a
hunter. When he was heading up production for Will Smith's Overbrook
Entertainment, he was a fisherman. "When you're working as a studio
executive, you can just bait your pole, stick it in the water and
wait. Now you really have to be active in going after things."
The game he's hunting as President of Ironpond remains the same
game that all Hollywood dealmakers pursue, hunters and fishermen
movies that human beings of all nationalities will pay money to see.
The main difference is that Zee now has both the opportunity and the
obligation to seek out projects that have a trans-Pacific angle. That
means movies made in Hollywood for Asian audiences and Asian movies
that may translate well for American audiences.
A case in point is West 32nd Street. It's a Corean (Korean)
gangster movie set in Manhattan. The director is Michael Kang whose
The Motel was featured at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It stars
Corean American actors John Cho (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle)
and Corean stars Jun Sung Kim and Jeong Jun-ho. It will also feature
Corean American eye candy Grace Park (Battlestar Gallactica) and Jane
Kim. The dialogue is two-thirds English and one-third Corean.
Shooting was completed over the summer and Zee is trying to get it
ready in time for a Sundance submission. As it happens, he had met
director Kang at The Motel party at the 2005 Sundance when Zee's
Saving Face was also being screened there.
Zee is particularly enthusiastic about 32nd Street co-star Jun
Sung Kim. "Jun Kim has world star potential," says Zee. "He's about
30, a guy's guy. Women love him. [He has a] powerful presence, wants
to be an actor, doesn't care about being a star." Having grown up in
Hong Kong, Kim happens to speak fluent English as well as Corean,
Mandarin and Cantonese the perfect kind of actor to embody the
trans-Pacific spirit on which Ironpond is staking its future.
As he looks to that future Teddy Zee relies heavily on his past.
Hollywood careers, at least the great ones, go through at least a few
incarnations - gopher-agent-producer-studio head, say, or actor-
director-producer, or writer-actor-director-producer. The true
survivors know when to make the switch before everyone else does. Zee
is now in what may be his sixth or maybe seventh incarnation.
His last extended incarnation was heading up the film production
arm of Will Smith's multi-faceted entertainment enterprise. Several
things told him the time was right to undergo one final
metamorphosis. For one Zee was approaching 50 and yearned for the
freedom to flex the dealmaking and project-creating muscles he'd
built up under the auspices of employers. For another, he could see
that Hollywood had stopped growing and was, as a matter of fact,
making fewer and fewer movies with each passing year.
"Hollywood made fewer movies last year than the year before,"
Zee says. "China is the final frontier." That's why he decided to
partner up with Peter Shiao, the son of a famous Chinese writer who
built extensive contacts while working as a D.C. lobbyst practicing
the delicate art of negotiating Chinese bureaucracy. "Everyone has
made a lot of mistakes in China," says Zee. "We can leverage Peter's
experience in China and my experience in Hollywood to smooth out the
process and make good things happen."
In refocusing his career on an Asian-centric future, Zee isn't
some carpetbagger. He established his Asian American bona fides for
most of the two decades he was deeply immersed in the Hollywood
A case in point is the romantic comedy called Saving Face. While
heading up Overbrook's film production arm, Zee took a fancy to the
script by first-time screenwriter Alice Wu. He even gave Wu the
opportunity to make her directorial debut when the project began
shooting in New York. He cast veteran star Joan Chen to play the
pregnant mother of a lesbian surgeon. He chose as co-stars the then
relatively unknown Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen. It was shot half
in Mandarin for Chinese distribution. It was a small movie, and hit
just the right note to be one of about a hundred picked for the 2005
Sundance Film Festival. It also ended up winning the 2005 Golden
Horse Audience Award for best movie.
Another of Zee's trend-setting Asian projects was The
Replacement Killers (1998) starring Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino.
That was while he was heading up production at Davis Entertainment.
He worked with Hong Kong producer Terrence Chang to bring about
Chow's move to Hollywood. Zee has also been credited with producing
the critically acclaimed Life or Something Like It (2002) before
moving to Overbrook.
Most of Zee's remarkable 20-year career in Hollywood was built
on his proven talent for keeping a low profile while nailing down the
details that translate ultimately into greenlighted productions. But
there's a wildly fortuitous side to Zee's career as well.
When we initially sought out Teddy Zee for an earlier interview in
2004, we had him confused with the main character in a 1989-90 TV
sitcom about a Hollywood agent called The Famous Teddy Z. One of the
things we had really wanted to ask was how he had become such a
famous agent and how he had made the transition to being a studio
executive, then to heading up two production companies. We were also
curious how a Cornell grad with a Harvard MBA ended up in Hollywood
in the first place, particularly in the mailroom of a talent agency.
Turns out Teddy Zee had never worked his way up from the
mailroom of a famous Hollywood talent agency. He had never been an
agent at all. In fact, he had never really been famous, much less a
legend. We had been a victim of mass-media hypnosis. The stuff that
flickers on the tube while you're thinking about other things has a
way of bypassing your critical faculties and seeping into your brain
unchallenged to take its place alongside your stores of more factual
Fortunately, the real Teddy Zee's story turned out to be as
interesting as the fictional Teddy Z's. More amazingly, it turned out
that Zee was the inspiration for the Teddy Z character on TV!
Teddy Zee, the real one, was born May 15, 1957 in upstate New
York to impoverished Chinese immigrants. He was the youngest of four
children. A scholarship from his father's labor union gave the young
man with the fast last name a full ride through Cornell. Upon
graduating in 1979 with a degree in the unglamorous field of labor
relations, Zee got hired by the personnel department of NBC. He soon
found himself eyeing the more exciting entertainment side. Three
years later he returned to school and earned a Harvard MBA in hopes
of being hired back as an NBC entertainment exec. He was rejected. In
1985 he landed a dream job as a development executive at Paramount,
and made the most of the opportunity. Since then he has been an
executive vice-president of production at Columbia, then president of
production at Davis Entertainment. In 2001 Zee became president of
production at Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment.
Zee married a woman he met at Harvard Business School. They married
in 1986 and lived for some time in Hancock Park with their two teen-
age daughters. Those were details gleaned from our earlier interview.
Being unusually tight-lipped about his personal life for a Hollywood
type, Zee refuses to provide updates.
But during a transitional period of about a year after leaving
Overbrook and starting up Ironpond, Teddy Zee did shed his zealously
guarded mantle of anonymity to become a talk show host for AZN TV.
During that brief incarnation, he served as co-chair of the 2006
Asian Excellence Awards, televised on AZN-TV. When that show prompted
radio host Adam Carolla to spew a bizarre anti-Asian on-air tirade,
Zee joined with MAANA's Guy Aoki to pressure Carolla's employers to
force Carolla to invite them onto his program. Zee and Aoki spent an
amusing half-hour verbally cornering Carolla into an apology and a
promise of better behavior in the future. That brief interlude
showed, in a nutshell, that Teddy Zee is a guy who knows what he
wants and figures out how to make it happen.