Photo Courtesy of Andrew Ooi
Andrew Ooi's talent for placement
HONG KONG: Very late one recent evening at a fashionable Hong Kong bar, Andrew Ooi excused himself from a group of local film executives to find a quiet corner and take a phone call. And then another. Returning to his sympathetic friends some 20 minutes later, he sheepishly apologized, mumbling about how people were just starting work in Los Angeles and how a deal was about to be closed.
In several time zones these days, the Singapore-born talent manager is quite the man of the hour, with a lot of people in The Industry wanting to speak to him. If you have recently noticed an Asian actor playing a meaty supporting role in a big Hollywood film, chances are that he or she is represented by Ooi through his Vancouver company, Echelon Talent Management. His best clients not only get good work, but do so regularly, an unusual situation for Asian actors in the United States.
Meeting a few days later at a hotel lobby, Ooi, who is in his mid-thirties, fiddled with his ubiquitous cellphone between sips of hot mint tea. During the interview he took only two calls, one about a client and another from his sister who lives in Hong Kong and was due to give birth. ("It's a nephew!," he later e-mailed.)
Ooi has a gentle, boy-next-door demeanor, and his Singapore staccato picked up when he talked about the success of "The Dark Knight," Warner Brother's latest Batman summer blockbuster. To date it has grossed an astonishing $470 million in the United States. One of Ooi's clients, Chin Han, plays the mob accountant, a pivotal supporting character. "We worked very hard to get him that role," the manager said, evidently pleased.
With Dark Knight's success, the Singaporean actor won a lead part in "2012." A doomsday thriller backed by Sony Pictures, it is directed by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day") and touted as a major movie for summer 2009. Echelon has four actors in that project. In "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-li," a big action film based on the hit video game and due in cinemas next year, three plum roles went to Ooi's actors, including the Hong Kong indie film star Josie Ho Chiu-yi. Valerie Tian was in last year's quirky drama "Juno."
Today John Woo, Chow Yun-fat and Tsui Hark are back in China making movies. But more than a decade ago, many articles about a so-called "Hong Kong Invasion" were inspired by Asians getting top-billing in Hollywood fare. "That's when I first came on the scene, so full of idealism," Ooi chuckled.
And now? He's become pragmatic. "It is still a lot easier for an Asian actress to break into Hollywood" than it is for an Asian actor, he said. "As much as Hollywood is global, they have to sell tickets and in the U.S., which is their big market, it is about middle America. They need an actor who can help open at theaters and sell DVDs; an Asian actress can get a good support role or be the love interest."
One of Echelon's top talents is Maggie Q, the Hong Kong model-actress. She starred with Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible 3" (2006), with Bruce Willis in "Live Free or Die Hard" (2007) as well as with the Chinese superstar Andy Lau Tak-wah in this year's "Three Kingdoms." Last week, the video gaming behemoth Electronic Arts announced that she would feature as a lead character in "Need for Speed: Undercover," due at the end of the year.
The actress, who is currently shooting "Rogue's Gallery" with Ving Rhames and Ellen Barkin, replied to questions by e-mail, saying: "Your manager is your ring leader, one who brings everyone together on the same page, and pushes what's necessary to the forefront. For me, I need eyes on the East and the West. So for that reason alone, my manager has an incredibly complex and big job."
Up against the big agencies like William Morris and CAA, Echelon - which has only five employees, including Ooi - has held its own specializing in Asian talents with Ooi's own brand of personal attention, wise counsel and multicultural sensitivity. According to Raymond Pathanavirangoon, the Southeast Asia and Hong Kong programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, Ooi is "not very Hollywood. He doesn't just think about how much he can get but he thinks of the long-term."
A 1994 graduate of the University of British Columbia's chemistry department, Ooi originally planned to become a doctor. Doing volunteer work in a geriatrics ward, however, he took deaths very hard, making him realize he wasn't cut out for medicine.
He comes from a family of bankers, and his conservative parents in Singapore were horrified when, on top of ditching medical school, he sold his car to take over a friend's small company that supplied Asian extras for television shows and films in Canada. By the third year he closed that division to concentrate on actors, and has never looked back. As the management company, Echelon takes a standard 15 percent commission. Ooi won't reveal what his clients command now, and will only say, "they are holding their rates and they are comfortable."
Ooi spends most of his time in North America, visiting Asia every month. "We are very busy," he said. "Now, more films are looking for Asian casts" as big-budget productions covet revenues from overseas, which can sometimes account for two-thirds of total sales. "They want to appeal to the Asian market, so they cast Asians," he said.
The trend has caught the eye of other Hollywood veterans. The actress Michelle Yeoh just launched an agency to promote Asian actors in international films.
There is certainly no shortage of wannabe Maggie Qs and others who track down Ooi, seeking Hollywood fame. "Maybe one, two dozen a day? I get approached all the time," he said. For those who he feels have strong potential, he tells them what to work on, including improving their American accents. He also needs clients to know how to audition, a standard requirement in Hollywood but not in Asia, even for minor actors.
"It has to be a partnership and talents have to want to work hard," he said. After more than a decade of networking, studios often approach Echelon when they are casting Asians. Ooi usually knows what directors are looking for, and only sends a client who might be suitable.
Speaking of the Echelon office in Vancouver, Ooi seems rather proud that it does not have a sign. "People know where to find us," he said with a smile.