Leonsis's 'Filmanthropy' Plants a Seed With Buddies

Ted Leonsis bankrolled, selected the director and helped cast and edit his entry in the Sundance Film Festival, the documentary
Ted Leonsis bankrolled, selected the director and helped cast and edit his entry in the Sundance Film Festival, the documentary "Nanking." (By Noah Berger -- Bloomberg News)
By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ted Leonsis had seen his documentary "Nanking" dozens of times before it premiered Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. He bankrolled it and selected the director, the actors and agents. He traveled to China and helped in the editing. But there he was wiping the tears off his face at the end of the premiere in the Library Theatre in Park City, after "A Film by Ted Leonsis" had scrolled past in the credits.

"It really hit me," Leonsis explained in an interview an hour later. "It's the first time that I can't believe I had an idea, and now we're in a movie theater watching a movie I made."

The film, a spare, sober recounting of the rapes and murders of 300,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers in the city of Nanking in 1937 and '38, cost Leonsis $2 million to make. The movie's somber heroes are a collection of Westerners, and one Nazi businessman, who stayed behind and constructed a safe zone in the city that saved the lives of 200,000 Chinese. Such actors as Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway help narrate the story, playing some of those involved. The family of one of the real-life heroes, American physician Robert Wilson, attended the premiere and thanked Leonsis and his staff during a question-and-answer session after the movie.

Leonsis, who owns the Washington Capitals hockey team, is meeting this week in Utah with distributors in hopes of getting the film released to movie theaters and television; he's already struck one deal for the international release rights.

And now that he's made one film, Leonsis thinks he's latched onto a Big Idea: He fancies using a "filmanthropy" model to make future projects with a social bent.

"It's where you can shed light on a big issue. You raise the money around your charity and make something that can drive people to understand an issue," said Leonsis, sporting an "End War" button on his coat. "It brings together philanthropy and understanding how media works. You're going to see a lot of people doing this because a studio probably wouldn't do a story like this."

A few of Leonsis's pals who attended the premiere thought they too might like to try their hands at filmanthropy.

Raul Fernandez, one of Leonsis's partners in the Capitals and a hugely successful entrepreneur, mused about teaming with his friend on a film that would shed light on an important topic in the Hispanic and Catholic communities. (He is the son of Cuban and Ecuadorian immigrants.)

"I don't know what the topic will be, but I want to find something that will touch a huge section of the American population," Fernandez said.

Mark Ein, the founder of Venturehouse, an investment company in the District, said he'd like to tackle a project as well.

"This movie resonates with me because my mom is a Holocaust survivor," Ein said after the premiere. "It showed how ordinary people can be both heroic and horrific if put in the right or wrong situation."

Filmanthropy can present a marketing challenge. "Nanking," for instance, chillingly depicts, through photos, film footage and memories of eyewitnesses, the rape, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army. To make "Nanking," Leonsis formed a production company, Agape, which is Greek for "love." His wife, Lynn, and son, Zach, helped work on the project, with Zach unearthing footage from the Library of Congress that included beheadings and torture in Nanking, which is the former Chinese capital.

"We are emotionally exhausted," Lynn Leonsis said following the premiere.

As exhilarating as the night was, Leonsis, ever the salesman, didn't forget why he was at Sundance: to pitch his film. And he wasn't shy about describing his movie.

"It's a tough, important movie to watch," Leonsis said. "But it's uplifting stuff. This is 'Schindler's List' with a Chinese twist. This movie, if marketed right, could be like a 'Passion of the Christ,' " he said, referring to the surprise blockbuster of 2004.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company