University of Toronto Scarborough alumna Cybill Lui (photo by Liam Sharp)

U of T entrepreneurs: Cybill Lui

From Wall Street to Beverly Hills

Cybill Lui remembers the moment clearly. Two years into her job as a finance executive for a New York-based health-care company she’d helped build from the ground up, she was pulling another late night, staring at another financial model on her computer.

“It was driving me crazy,” she says, “and I thought, I can’t believe I’m stuck in this tiny office, alone.”

Lui, who took the position after several years of working as an investment banker on Wall Street, was good at raising funds and she liked negotiating and closing deals. But she had noticed a discrepancy between her working life and her social life.

“Instead of hanging out with the bankers in the financial district, I spent my social time with artists and struggling ones at that,” she says. “And I started to wonder how I could mesh the two.”

A year later, at the age of 28, Lui (who graduated in 2002 from University of Toronto Scarborough) packed up everything, moved to Los Angeles, and, with producing partner George Zakk, launched a new career in film. To hear her talk about Wall Street from the sunny office she now occupies in Beverly Hills, the world of finance sounds light years away. But movies, like finance, are a big business. Lui says knowing how to raise funds, execute legal contracts and bring key players to the table have given her company, An Olive Branch Productions, a competitive edge. (Read more about An Olive Branch Productions.)

The company’s first project, Casino Jack, hit cinemas in 2010, earning its lead, Kevin Spacey, a Golden Globe nomination. The company’s second feature, The Philosophers, had its market premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Lui, who has five more features in different stages of production, says she plans to start a solo venture, Anova Pictures, later this year.

Even for seasoned producers, making movies is never a cakewalk, and Lui’s journey is no exception. She says she spent years developing a script and bringing top talent and financing to the table, only to have it fall apart at the last minute. It’s a devastating feeling and one that is all too common in Hollywood.

“Every producer will tell you that one of the most challenging things about this business is that there are so many things that are outside your control.”

And even when you do get to forge ahead, you often feel like you are attempting the impossible. The Philosophers, for example, was shot on location in remote parts of Indonesia. To move her cast and crew to the location, an active volcano, Lui had to charter a jet and hire jeeps and police escorts to accompany the entire 100-person entourage on a two-hour trek inland.

“Everyone was tired,” she recalls. “But then we arrived on set beside the volcano and it was the strangest and most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life.”

All of a sudden the months of planning and the pains she’d taken to get them there made sense. Staring at their surroundings, everyone, including herself, says Lui, was in complete awe. And she thought, “Yeah, I’m definitely not going back to banking any time soon.”

Leah Cameron is a writer with U of T magazine. (See more stories from U of T Magazine.)

The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief