Teddy Zee, Hollywood producer, talks about how Korean start-up companies shouldn't be afraid to "dream big," in an interview held in Gaheo-dong, Seoul. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Kim Ji-soo
Chow Yun-fat stars in a scene in "The Replacement Killers."
Teddy Zee, a Chinese-American producer in Hollywood, knows how hard it is to break into mainstream. He spent his life and career learning how to do so.
The 55-year-old has spent 25 years in Tinsel Town including as an executive vice president for Columbia Pictures and is known for championing Asian talent in Hollywood.
The producer advised Korean start-up companies hesitant about going global to "dream big" and to "think big."
"When I was starting out, it took lots of money to make a movie or TV show. But technology has democratized the content business capital to do producing and writing," said Teddy Zee, 55, who has produced such films as "Pursuit of Happiness," and "Hitch."
He has brought Asian talent to Hollywood notably Hong Kong actor's Chow Yun-fat in the film "The Replacement Killers." He compares the process of making a film as similar to starting a company. So he knows what the Korean firms ― start-ups must face and that's why he's one of the mentors at SparkLabs. SparkLabs is a Korean startup accelerator founded by Bernard Moon, Hanjoo Lee and James Kim. Zee is friends with Moon and was so impressed with the line of SparkLabs advisers that he wanted to help out. Zee was attending SparkLabs' first demo day in Seoul Thursday.
"The wild success of Hyundai, Samsung and K-pop have taken the Korean influence far beyond the border and the region," Zee said, adding that Koreans shouldn't take what they have for granted and see themselves in the world, and go beyond borders.
"Korea is a huge influencer," said Zee, adding that when he goes to K-pop concerts in the United States, half of the audience is not Asian. Due to its incredible popularity, which not only influences music, but fashion, and it positions Asians in a way that says mainstream, he said.
He said it's noteworthy to look at how Samsung, once perceived as a latecomer and copier, has embraced innovation to take technology and the mobile lifestyle to a new dimension. This is despite its large-size, something that small, start-up firms should be aware of.
Zee dismissed the notion that Koreans lack the entrepreneurial spirit to found start-ups.
"So many had the opportunity to be salary men… but SparkLabs participants want to take a risk," he said. "So that is why SparkLabs is so important. To lend the support. It's not just money, it's the experience, the knowledge sharing. What do you do when you need to deal with the most basic problems? To have mentors to help you financially, technologically and emotionally."
Zee himself has embraced technology, becoming involved in Bent Pixels, which is an official multi channel network of YouTube that creates and curates different vertical networks. They develop software that helps content owners identify, optimize and monetize "fan picked content" or videos from their favorite artists that fans upload to their own YouTube channel.
Also, the lack of any safety net should start-ups go belly-up can be a great motivation for people to become entrepreneurs.
"The safety net is no longer there in the United States. Because people are no longer employed, they are forced to be entrepreneurs. The best opportunity sometimes presents itself out of necessity," he said.
The producer said that the multitude of audition programs and thousands who apply even at the risk of publicly failing shows that Korea too is changing.
But Zee emphasized that Koreans shouldn't fear failure, because this is often an unavoidable ingredient in the recipe for success.
"When you're starting out, you're not thinking about bankruptcy law. You're dreaming. When you're at the bottom, you have nothing to lose," he said.
Born in the small town of Liberty, New York in 1957, Zee grew up as a minority whose mother still had bound feet and a father who taught himself to read. He said one of the reasons that he brought Asian talent to Hollywood was to create role models for children like him who had to grow up without public role models.
Zee is currently hoping to have the story of the Kim Sisters made into a TV drama or film. The Kim Sisters were a Korean trio who made their career in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. They were Sue (Sook-ja), Aija (Ai-ja) and their cousin Mia Kim. He said he saw a similarity between the way the Kim Sisters' father molded the three girls into entertainers and how the leading entertainment agencies trained their aspirants.
"These women started out with nothing and they took great risks," Zee said. "They were the true pioneers of K-pop … Before these women pass away, I want the world to know or at least the young Koreans to know that they paved the way," he said.