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Film exec did well; now he does good

Scott Neeson gave up a plush living marketing movies to try to lift Cambodian children from squalor and want.

June 19, 2005|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Cynicism is as much a part of Hollywood as the feel-good story. Just ask Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

So imagine what the town made out of this log line -- studio big shot leaves the glitz and glam of Tinseltown to open an orphanage amid the poverty and squalor of Southeast Asia. It's "The Cider House Rules" meets "The Killing Fields." Get Nicolas Cage to star, work in a love story and you've got an Oscar release for the fall.

In this case though, it's not a movie, but the latest and still unfinished chapter in the life of Scott Neeson. If that name doesn't register in bright lights, don't worry, it's not supposed to. The Scottish-born, Australian-bred man is not famous, though until recently, by most standards he would have certainly been considered rich and powerful.

Last year, Neeson stepped down from a senior international marketing post at Sony Pictures Entertainment. Before that, for more than a decade, the 46-year-old held similar high-ranking marketing positions for 20th Century Fox International. The high-flying positions paid well enough to allow him to enjoy a Brentwood home, a Porsche 911, a Dodge SUV and a 36-foot yacht -- that is, when he wasn't flying back and forth to Europe, Asia or South America promoting such films as "Titanic," "Braveheart" and "Ice Age."

A five-week break between positions in 2003, however, put Neeson on a different path. He'd planned a backpacking trip through Asia with a three-day stopover in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, on his way from Thailand to India. Shortly after landing in the impoverished country still recovering from a blood-drenched genocide decades ago, Neeson was struck by the large number of street children begging for food and money.

It started with the 50 cents he gave to a little girl for a Coke. A little more than a year later, Neeson had quit his job, sold his house and moved across an ocean to open a children's center providing schooling and shelter for abandoned, homeless and orphaned children in Phnom Penh. He lives in the center in a single room with no hot water and gets around the city on a motor scooter.

Now, it's Neeson who's asking for money. After investing more than $100,000 of his own into founding the Cambodian Children's Fund (, he's asking his former colleagues to contribute to the program, which provides housing, two meals per day, clothing, health care, education, vocational training and security to around 110 children between ages 5 and 14. Meanwhile, Neeson is scouting nearby locations to open another children's center.

At a recent fundraiser at the Brentwood home of Jim Gianopulos, co-chair of Fox Filmed Entertainment, Neeson admitted being nervous before facing the well-heeled industry crowd that included the likes of Luke Wilson, Benicio Del Toro and Matt Dillon, not to mention a host of writers, directors and other assorted Hollywood types with exotic eyeglass frames.

"It feels like I'm bringing my family up onstage and saying I can't afford Christmas presents and my son has eczema and my daughter has asthma."

Speculation over a choice

News of Neeson's career move created something of a stir inside Hollywood. The single man with no children is having a midlife crisis, the rumor mill speculated. Or he was pushed out of his job at Fox and/or Sony. Or he's just playing some angle for a triumphant return. Or he's gone nuts.

Peter Farrelly, half of the comedy brother duo behind "Dumb and Dumber" and most recently "Fever Pitch," mocked the air of cynicism around Neeson. When asked at the fundraiser why he was supporting Neeson's efforts for the poor children of Cambodia, Farrelly replied: "It's mainly good PR for me."

Producer Bradley Thomas, who helped organize the event that netted more than $400,000 for the fund, responded this way: "Whatever rumors are out there are sad. I mean Scott is doing it, he's living there. He goes out to the dumps, he takes the [children] off the streets and gives them a new chance at life. The turnaround is just remarkable. That's why he's doing it.

"I had a conversation with him recently and I asked why he's doing it and he said when you're working at a Fox or Sony or anywhere in the business, there's a little bit of uncertainty about whether you're doing the right thing in life," added Thomas. "Well, he's not wondering about that anymore."

Perhaps if Neeson's initial attempts -- which he now characterizes as horribly naive -- to help the street children weren't so frustrating and tragic, the center might never have been created. In his first couple of days in the capital, he decided to sponsor an entire family, buying a street child clothes, food, a space in a private school and extended rent on an apartment.

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