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Ted Leonsis Takes a Sharp Turn

Ted Leonsis, center, worked with Hollywood veterans Bill Guttentag, left, and Buddy Squires on his first film. Leonsis compares his project to the movie
Ted Leonsis, center, worked with Hollywood veterans Bill Guttentag, left, and Buddy Squires on his first film. Leonsis compares his project to the movie "Schindler's List." (Courtesy Of Ted Leonsis)

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By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006

Ted Leonsis was cruising the Caribbean on his yacht a couple of years ago, poring over old newspapers, when he noticed an obituary for Iris Chang, author of "The Rape of Nanking," the best-seller about the killing in 1937 of 300,000 Chinese by the Japanese army.

The story stuck with him, and after he read Chang's book his preoccupation with the tale grew. Then he pulled out his checkbook.

Two million dollars later, having pulled together a film crew and navigated the bureaucracy in China, Leonsis's documentary about the incident is nearing completion.

Though he calls the project a "labor of love," he is also hoping it can find enough of an audience to turn a profit -- and give him broader access to a Chinese market where memories of Nanking remain raw. Chinese television rights to the show have been sold, and Leonsis said he hopes to use local DVD sales as an advertising platform for businesses that want to break into the Chinese market.

The film, still untitled, chronicles the story of a dozen Westerners, including a Nazi businessman, who risked their lives and used their influence in Nanking in December 1937 to create a safe zone to protect 250,000 Chinese. (The city is now known as Nanjing.)

"It's got Germany. It's got Japan. It's got an invasion that had terrible consequences to the Chinese people, and it's a story that hasn't been told," said the 50-year-old AOL vice chairman, who said he was drawn to the tale because mostly it's about simple people who rose to the occasion and did a great thing.

The film's success depends on whether a story of horrific violence ultimately makes audiences feel good, Leonsis said. He compares it to Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," which dealt with one hero who saved many from the Holocaust.

"The risk is that we don't execute it well enough that the goodness doesn't seep out," Leonsis said. To help position the film, Leonsis has already selected its marketing slogan: "What would you have done?"

Leonsis has had mixed success when venturing beyond AOL, where the value of his stock flirted with $1 billion before the company merged with Time Warner Inc. He has lost about $100 million on the NHL Capitals since he and fellow investors bought them from Abe Pollin in 1999. His wooing of NBA great Michael Jordan helped make the Wizards a hot ticket for four seasons, but the relationship ended badly when Pollin fired Jordan.

This time he's optimistic.

Though the day of the blockbuster is hardly over, smaller, independent films are proving successful in what Leonsis calls the "new Hollywood," and some of his fellow sports-team owners have preceded him in the industry.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has helped produce several films, including "Akeelah and the Bee," and owns part of the Landmark Theater chain, which shows independent films. Philip F. Anschutz, who owns the Staples Center in Los Angeles and much of Major League Soccer, has produced "My Dog Skip" and other movies.


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