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10 to Watch: Mark Ciardi & Gordon Gray

After working out of a garage, duo now playing with the majors

As a pitcher, Mark Ciardi recorded one victory during a brief major league stint with the Milwaukee Brewers before arm woes sent him and longtime friend Gordon Gray on a course that would lead to Hollywood. That combo just landed a bigger “W” than the one on the back of Ciardi’s baseball card when they got President Bush to host a White House screening of their first hit movie, “The Rookie.”

The duo had shown the film to Jenna Bush’s roommate at the University of Texas, who then enlisted the first daughter to make a phone call to her baseball enthusiast dad. The odds of getting Bush to take time away from the trouble in the Middle East to watch a movie were long, but the producers came from other businesses, and aren’t shackled by rules they never learned. The White House coup gave a boost to their fast-growing profile in Hollywood.

The duo met when the 39-year old Ciardi was hellbent on a baseball career and the 37-year old Gray was matriculating at USC. When sports didn’t pan out, they got entrepreneurial, first planning to open a sushi restaurant. “We had both the chef and the site until the latter was destroyed by the Northridge Earthquake,” Gray recalls. “So we decided to get into the movie business.”

The duo operated from humbling headquarters. “We started out in Gordon’s garage, we never worked for anyone and were never mentored, we are just regular guys trying to figure out to get things done,” says Ciardi. “We didn’t know how hard it was supposed to be, what the rules were.”

They got lucky when they read a Sports Illustrated story about how 37-year-old Jim Morris was pitching in the minors and might make the big leagues. Ciardi knew Morris and they got then-Disney exec Todd Garner ready to option the school teacher’s rights just as his comeback was becoming national news. They’ve followed Garner to Revolution with a first-look deal. They have a May 10 release on the Revolution comedy “The New Guy”; are out to directors on the broad comedy “The Jane Plan” at Disney; and while they’ve abandoned the garage, they’re tinkering with a movie based on the famed talking-car series “Knight Rider.”

Snapshot:

Primary credit: “The Rookie”

Definition of a producer: Ciardi: “To us, it’s being there, being attentive and involved through the whole process. On ‘The Rookie,’ we were there for the development of the script, all the decision-making on the set, post-production and publicity. We’re good at making people feel comfortable, and walked away friends with everyone who worked on our movie. That was important to us.”

Strengths: Ciardi: “We have regular guy tastes. We’re not film students, but we are well read and are fans of good stories.”

Achilles’ heel: Gray: “We got two pictures greenlit from out of a garage, but a few times we had problems finding the mute button when one of us was having a conversation and the other was opening the garage door.”