The $2 billion man
By Jonathan Haagen
Updated: 2007-06-29 07:55

Zee has worked on Hollywood hits such as Saving Face, Charlie's Angels and Hitch, which starred Will Smith and Eva Mendes (above left).
Courtesy of Teddy Zee

Having conquered Hollywood, Teddy Zee - aka Xu Xiachang - is returning to China to promote "China's rightful place as a leader in world cinema" and hopes to turn the face of Hollywood "a couple shades more yellow".

Today, Zee is the most important Asian producer in Hollywood. The son of immigrants from Shanghai, Zee was a driving force behind the monster hits The Pursuit of Happyness and Hitch and oversaw production of blockbusters such as Charlie's Angels to Hero. In total, his films have grossed more than $2 billion.

When Zee came to China this month to speak at the Shanghai Film Festival, he felt as if he was returning home. Although the American-born producer is among Hollywood's most influential figures, he has always felt like a man apart.

Zee was born in a small village a few hours outside of New York City, but his parents, who came from Shanghai, spoke only Shanghainese at home. And Chinese food was the only cuisine on their dinner table.

"I was 5 before I ate Western food for the first time," he recalls. "It was at a friend's house, and I thought it was terrible. I couldn't wait to get back home to some real food."

Young Teddy used to sneak into his basement to steal sips of his mother's homemade rice wine and would help his uncle make and sell rice cakes. "When I eat niangao (glutinous cake for the Spring Festival) now, it reminds me of my childhood and gives me great comfort," he said.

Ironically, it was Zee's sense of being an outsider that would later propel him to the ranks of Hollywood insider. Because his mother never learned English and his father learned just enough to get a job as a salad chef in a local hotel, Teddy learned the English and American culture by watching TV and movies.

Like many Chinese families around the world, Teddy's parents championed education and, despite being poor, made it possible for their children to get college and post-graduate degrees.

Following his undergraduate years at Cornell University, Zee took a job in human resources at NBC. There, he saw people working in creative capacities to make TV shows come to life, and it inspired him.

"I knew I wanted one of those jobs," he says. "But who would ever hire a Chinese kid from a small village in upstate New York? I needed to get an edge."

He found that edge in education. Knowing that he couldn't just walk into a TV or film career, Zee enrolled in Harvard University's business school. At the time, business degrees were rare in Hollywood. So, he "was able to offer them something new". While most producers in Los Angeles get their start as runners or in the mailroom, Zee's first job was as a creative executive for Paramount Pictures. 

His first week on the job, he met Eddie Murphy as he was riding on the waves of his successful hits 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop, had lunch with Tom Cruise during the filming of Top Gun and heard Hollywood war stories from Jack Nicholson.

"I was in shock at how quickly things happened for me," he says. "I had just come out to Hollywood from Harvard, and my very first day on the job, I was given my own parking space and secretary."

Like much of the rest of the country, Hollywood tends to place the United States and American values at the very center of the universe. "It can be very clubby and closed," Zee says. Traditionally, that has meant that Chinese directors and producers are held to different standards.

"The hardest part for a Chinese person is getting a job in the first place," Zee says. "Once you get the job, Hollywood is famous for making life difficult for you on an equal-opportunity basis."

However, Zee admits that when he started his career, he faced some unique challenges as the first Chinese and only Asian studio executive in Hollywood.

"For many years, I was the only one, and I had to endure all the normal stereotypes you might expect," he said. "Some people were shocked I could speak English so well. Others asked if I was expert at kungfu. No one could tell or cared that there were big differences between being Chinese, Korean or Japanese."

Zee credited his upbringing for helping him to overcome these challenges.

"Being Chinese in Hollywood is very much like being Chinese in America," Zee explains. "When I was growing up, I always felt like an outsider, but that meant when I first got to Hollywood, I had great training on how to go from being an outsider to becoming an insider."

With several blockbuster hits under his belt, Zee found that in the end, the only color Hollywood cares about is green. "It is all about making money. If you can make them money, they don't care if you are black, yellow or blue," he said.

Of all his films, Zee says that Saving Face, an astonishingly universal tale about a Chinese family's life in New York, was the most fulfilling project he has worked on. "It was near and dear to me, because it required using all my years of experience and goodwill built over time in Hollywood."

The project was not an immediate slam-dunk. In a business where stories about Chinese-Americans do not necessarily turn into box office gold, Saving Face had the additional drawbacks of being written and directed by a first-timer, while half of the dialogue was in Chinese.

"That's what made it so unusual and meaningful," he says. Zee's confidence in the film paid off. It not only earned a profit for Sony Pictures but also won the Golden Horse Audience Award in Taiwan.

If Saving Face was his most fulfilling project, Zee says that Hitch was certainly his craziest. The movie was always supposed to star Will Smith, but the original female lead was Jennifer Lopez.

"By the time we were ready to make the movie, she was no longer available. Then, we had interest in Halle Berry, but if we got her, the movie would have been too expensive," he says. Zee finally resolved the issue by signing up-and-coming actress Eva Mendes.

However, he also had to solve the issue of finding a good director. The first director to sign on had done Bridget Jones' Diary, but she had to drop out of the film.

"I was at the gym, and as I was walking out of the shower, I literally bumped into Andy Tennant," Zee recalls. "We had worked together on Fools Rush In, and Andy was looking for his next project. I told him about Hitch as we were both naked and dripping wet. We ended up making the movie together six months later."

Hitch went on to be Columbia's largest grossing movie of that year, raking in an astounding $360 million in worldwide ticket sales. "It's fitting that the movie was about love, because I loved making that movie," Zee says.

Zee has applied the old adage that writers should write what they know to producing. Many of his films reflect themes from his own life. Saving Face tells the story of Chinese families in New York; The Pursuit of Happyness is a stirring tale of a self-made man striving for a better life in the US.

The immigrant's journey to the United States is also a common theme among his films. In one of Hitch's most poignant scenes, Will Smith takes Eva Mendes on a date to the Ellis Island museum to show her records of her grandfather's first landing in New York.

"(The scene) had particular interest to me. My mother and brother came through Ellis Island, and so I took the director to the plaque where he could see their names," Zee recalls. "When you walk through Ellis Island, you get chills up and down your spine, thinking of the hopes and dreams of the arriving immigrants."

Having produced films that, in part, chronicle his complex relationship with the country of his birth, Zee is returning to the country of his ancestors to take on new challenges.

At the Shanghai Film Festival, which ended on June 24, Zee discussed the prospects of traveling to his family's old home. "I love the energy of the city. It's a tremendous combination of China's past, present and incredible future," he says.

For the past six months, Zee has been traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and Beijing, and he plans to make the Chinese capital his second home.

"I am committed to China and China's rightful place as a world leader in cinema. Everything that has happened in my life and my 22-year career in Hollywood has led me home to China."

Zee says he is thrilled with the direction in which Chinese film is moving. "What most excites me is the storytelling of the new generation of Chinese directors, who are interested in exploring contemporary life in today's China," he says. "It's directors like Ning Hao and Dayyan Eng who will be tomorrow's Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige."

(China Daily 06/29/2007 page20)