A Driving Force

Festival organizer Jed Dietz has steered his career out of auto parts and into film.

1999 Maryland Film Festival

April 18, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Jed Dietz lives off Hollywood Lane. He bought his Roland Park home a few years back from a woman named Betty Davis. Care to guess what business he's in?

Movies, of course. "I guess it was fate," the man behind this week's inaugural Maryland Film Festival acknowledges with a laugh.

And what else but fate could explain the Johns Hopkins job offer that brought Dietz's wife, Julia, a pediatrician, to Baltimore and brought along this upstate New York native, who longed to become a player in the movie biz?

"We had established roots, we had a lot of friends, and our kids had spent all their lives in Syracuse. But from a career standpoint, I figured I could move. I was spending two weeks a month in Los Angeles, and I said, 'If there's an airport in Baltimore -- and I bet there is -- I can get back and forth to L.A.' So we ended up in Baltimore."

Fate or not, there's no question Dietz's move here in 1991 has helped the local movie scene. His Producers Club, a loose-knit association of film lovers and civic leaders, has helped persuade Jodie Foster, Clint Eastwood, Terry Gilliam and others to make their movies in Maryland.

And his group's championship of the Maryland Office of Film has helped transform a bureaucratic afterthought into a branch of the state's Office of Business and Economic Development, responsible for pumping millions of dollars annually into Maryland's economy.

Even more impressive, this is all volunteer work for Dietz, who runs the club out of his basement, pays his own expenses and lives off his savings and his wife's salary.

"He's had this complete dedication toward making film a real growth industry in Maryland," says Michael Styer, head of the state film office. "He's just been the No. 1 supporter, in the private sector, of the film office."

"Jed is a great rabble rouser in the best sense of the word, in getting people to think about making films in Maryland," says John Waters, who has never needed convincing when it comes to making films in Baltimore. "He's always there representing the state, which is very important."

Adds James G. Robinson, head of Baltimore-based Morgan Creek Productions, "The Producers Club has been directly responsible and most effective in bringing film to the state. And if he's doing all that for [nothing], I'm even more impressed."

Not that Dietz is entirely altruistic. He'd love it if his work here would help him become a big-time movie producer ("although I could become known as just the festival guy," he cautions).

His efforts are all part of a vague master plan aimed at getting the 51-year-old father of three grown children a career in the movie business -- something of a shift from 10 years ago, when he was helping run an auto-parts business his family had turned into a multimillion- dollar company.

"I was proud of the product," says Dietz, who has a history degree from the University of North Carolina and an MBA from the University of Rochester. "I liked the people I was working with, I liked the customers. But it wasn't movies."

A patient approach

Dietz came by his love for the movies slowly. There was no life-long fascination for film, no epiphany while sitting in a darkened theater. He'd done a little acting and directing at UNC, developing a passion for stage. But it wasn't until his decision to abandon the auto parts business that he began to look on film as a potential career.

"I was not one of those people who at the age of 8 got a camera and started making movies," he says. "I grew to love movies because, at their best, they change people's lives. I think they're the one American art form that is this miraculous combination of art and passion and capitalist Darwinism."

Shortly after leaving the family business in 1989, he took his first steps into filmmaking. "I had some friends in the business, and I did a lot of research before I jumped. I thought I could make a go of it."

He put together a limited partnership in Syracuse that raised $950,000 to use in moving projects from screenplay to screen. In all, the group helped bankroll 15 projects. So far, he says, none have made it to the screen. But, he adds quickly, none are dead in the water, either.

"It can take a long time in this business," he says. "You have to be patient."

Dietz seems to have no problem with patience. Despite the frenetic pace dictated by the coming festival, the wiry Dietz never seems less than assured. A recent workday morning saw him going from the festival offices to the Charles Theatre to lunch at the Inner Harbor, all while finalizing preparations for the four-day festival just two weeks away.

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