roducer” is the most overused word in Hollywood. It's been credited to everyone from the illiterate holder of a bare right to the seasoned pro responsible for the dicey undertaking of packaging a script, talent and financing months or even years before a director can yell “Action!” Teddy Zee is the latter. His task is to bring together pie-in-the-sky ideas with longstanding relationships in a combination that will persuade studio heads to sign commitments for tens of millions of production dollars. It's the line-by-line, call-by-call, meeting-by-meeting, good-news-bad-news grind that is, in many ways, the very antithesis of the glamour most people associate with being a Hollywood producer.
If Hollywood is a playground, Teddy Zee is an adult. His job is to remember names and birthdays, massage egoes, keep an even keel and generally stay on friendly terms with everyone in the business -- studio executives, screenwriters, directors, actors, agents.
That's one reason Teddy Zee doesn't want to release photos of himself other than the old black-and-white you see here. He's lubricant. He's glue. He isn't supposed to be a personality in the Hollywood scheme. The lower his profile, the less likely he is to trip over his own ego while pursuing a deal. If he started putting himself out in the spotlight, he might draw the ire of someone who prefers not to share the spotlight. In other words, like most real producers, Zee is nothing like the movie stereotype of the guy who goes around telling everyone that he's a producer.
So what are the rewards of being a producer? From time to time he succeeds in getting the green light on a film he cares about. The latest is a romantic comedy called Saving Face. It's based on a script by first-time screenwriter Alice Wu who made her directorial debut when the project began shooting in New York in late October. A Chinese American surgeon must save her pregnant and unwed mother's face by finding her a husband. Veteran star Joan Chen plays the mother. Her co-stars will be the relatively unknown Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen. It is scheduled for a six week shoot. It will be shot half in Mandarin for Chinese distribution. It's a small movie, but in a climate that has squeezed projects of all sizes, Zee feels lucky that it's being made at all.
Zee's other notable Asian project was The Replacement Killers (1998) starring Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino. 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 from his post as president of Davis Entertainment.
When we approached Zee for an interview, 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 information.
Fortunately, the real Teddy Zee's story is as interesting as the fictional Teddy Z's. More amazingly, it turns 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 met wife Elizabeth while they were at Harvard Business School. They married in 1986 and live in Hancock Park with their two daughters, aged 15 and 13.
We were put through to Teddy Zee at Overbrook Entertainment's Beverly Hills offices late one morning. Having just returned from a week-long Caribbean vacation, Zee's voice seems to exude relaxed friendliness. His tone befits a man whose career is fueled to a surprising degree by the quality of his phone conversations. More than any other, Hollywood is an industry of personalities. Those with the bad taste to display overt aggressiveness, abruptness, impatience or other unpleasant attitudes find themselves edged out in favor of those whose personalities wear better over time. Zee's tone of unhurried fellowship lasts thoughout the interview except maybe toward the very end when we showed unseemly interest in his income.
GS: Why did you make the switch from Davis to Overbrook? TZ: It was a great opportunity to work with one of the biggest stars in the movie business.
GS: Does Overbrook have an agreement with one of the studios? TZ: We have an agreement with Columbia Pictures as a first look. Overbrook is a partnership between Will Smith and James Lassiter. In this day and age with the business shrinking you need a competitive advantage. Will Smith is a magnet as a personality. And the things he does, whether it's music or action or comedy -- it's almost a brand. People want to be in business with Will and it allows me to have a competitive advantage.
GS: How long were you at Davis Entertainment? TZ: I was there a little over three years. It's a great company and they do a lot of things but there you're just another production entity.
GS: Weren't you president of production at Davis? TZ: It's a great company but when you're there, you have to compete with every other company in town for every script that comes out, and it's a real rat race. When I'm here with Will Smith, we get the best scripts. Everyone picks up the phone and wants to be in business with you. They call you. That's the difference.PAGE 2