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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Exit stadium, enter studio

June 08, 2004|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

When New York Met third baseman Todd Zeile was in town recently, he did more than hit a big home run against the Dodgers. He spent a couple of days moonlighting as an actor in a teen comedy called "Dirty Deeds" that recently finished shooting around town. When I met him on the film set one morning, he was dressed as a homeless vagabond, playing a scene in which someone in a passing car hits him in the head with a flying bottle. Helped to his feet by Milo Ventimiglia, the bad-boy heartthrob from "Gilmore Girls," Zeile, perhaps drawing on the experience of being conked in the coconut with a Roger Clemens knockdown pitch, said woozily, "Yeah, I'm OK, but somebody's gotta teach that [jerk] a lesson."

Although Zeile is retiring this fall after playing 16 seasons in the majors, the 38-year-old UCLA graduate isn't crazy enough to give up baseball for an acting career. He's even crazier: He financed "Dirty Deeds." A longtime movie lover, Zeile has teamed up with Bill Civitella, a talent manager who used to be his neighbor in Westlake Village, to form Green Diamond Entertainment, a production company that will focus on making mainstream films and TV shows. The company is in the process of raising $50 million as operating capital. Its principal investors aren't bankers. They're baseball players, including Zeile's former teammate New York Yankee slugger Jason Giambi, as well as New York Met stars Mike Piazza, Tom Glavine, Al Leiter and Cliff Floyd.

"I've always been fascinated with the film business, and this seemed like a good way to make a start," says Zeile, who raised roughly $2.5 million for "Dirty Deeds." "We're in the midst of raising a big enough line of credit so that, if need be, we could have two films in production at the same time. I talked to some of my friends in baseball, and everyone was really enthusiastic about being involved."

Baseball players have come a long way from the days when they'd lend their names to saloons and steak joints after they retired. Many keep a close eye on financial issues and operate independent investments outside of the game. Zeile, for example, has had considerable success as a partner in a real estate development company and a company that leases private jets. As Dan Kaplow, who just joined Green Diamond as head of production, says, "Put it this way: Todd makes more money outside of baseball than in it."

When Zeile was at spring training and on the road early in the season, he'd phone Civitella each day for progress reports, checking to see if the film was on schedule and on budget. "Film is probably as tenuous an occupation as the one I have now," he says. "We're definitely trying to not get in over our heads." One reason they chose a teen comedy as their company's first production, Zeile says, "is that it's a genre where you can make a film for a modest budget but still have an opportunity of reaching a broad target audience."

Civitella, who began his career as a drummer and road manager for singer Gloria Gaynor before becoming a personal manager, says they are choosy about projects. "We don't want to dive into the pool and hit concrete. But we have passion and common sense, so if we can find great talent and stories, we think we'll go far."

How far they go will depend as much on luck as on good judgment about scripts or talent. Hollywood has led as many wealthy outsiders to ruin as the mermaids and sirens who lured sailors to their death in innumerable folk tales. In recent decades, money poured into the business from Japan, France and Germany, leaving a trail of bad movies, broken dreams and bankruptcies. But even after foreign investors began backing off, a new generation of deep-pocketed entrepreneurs has stepped in to take their place, with varying degrees of success.

Real estate heir Steve Bing lost a bundle bankrolling "The Big Bounce" this year; he's now invested $80 million in "The Polar Express," starring Tom Hanks, due this November. Gateway co-founder Norm Waitt Jr. has backed a host of losers but also hit it big with "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." FedEx chairman Fred Smith's Alcon Entertainment has had hits and misses, among them "Insomnia" and "The Affair of the Necklace." After losing $40 million owning the Pittsburgh Penguin hockey team, high-tech tycoon Roger Marino has spent nearly that much funding a slate of art-house films, including the upcoming "Door in the Floor" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." Phil Anschutz, who owns the Los Angeles Kings as well as Regal Cinemas, the country's largest theater chain, has been bankrolling inspirational, family-oriented entertainment, leading him to spend $100 million on the Jackie Chan-starring remake of "Around the World in 80 Days" that's due out next week.

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