Leonsis Helps Filmmaker Meet Her Goals

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ted Leonsis, AOL vice chairman emeritus, is headed to the movies again.

Less than a year after producing his award-winning documentary "Nanking," the Washington Capitals owner has once again tapped the wallets and business acumen of local executives to support a social-minded film, this one about homeless soccer players.

"Kickin' It" tells the story of the 2006 Homeless World Cup, held in Cape Town, South Africa. The documentary fits into Leonsis's model of "filmanthropy" -- using small films to spur debate about social issues and inspire charitable giving. "Nanking," Leonsis's first venture into cinematic philanthropy, made a splash at last year's Sundance Film Festival for its sober retelling of Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians on the eve of World War II.

"Kickin' It" is director Susan Koch's pet project. Koch, a longtime Washingtonian and experienced filmmaker, got the idea while trolling the Internet and started work on the project in January 2006. But after 200 hours of filming around the world, she ran out of money and called Leonsis for help.

"I knew about 'Nanking' and his interest in philanthropy," Koch said. "I got together with Ted, and we just really clicked."

"I liked her," Leonsis said.

He e-mailed his posse -- including fellow Capitals owners and other business partners -- and in less than 24 hours, he had made the financial, marketing and philanthropic connections needed to turn Koch's idea into a full-fledged venture. Raul Fernandez of ObjectVideo, Mark Ein of Venturehouse Group, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, former AOLer Jack Davies, Capital One co-founder Nigel Morris and former Sporting News chief executive Rick Allen have chipped in with cash, business advice and marketing expertise.

Their goal is to get "Kickin' It" into film festivals, then release it to theaters and find a cable television outlet. They also hope to lure a high-powered narrator and build a charitable infrastructure around the movie.

Koch acknowledges that her subject may not be a natural blockbuster.

"People go, 'Homeless World Cup!' And they think, 'Oh my God, that sounds so bizarre. What do you mean, homeless people playing soccer?' " she said. "But when you think about it, some of the best soccer players came off the street."

The 90-minute film is being edited in Los Angeles and should be ready for distribution next year. Leonsis wants to pay Koch and her team, recoup their investments and give the rest away.

"We want to activate the building of soccer [fields]," Leonsis said. "The main deliverable of the film is that a $2 ball can change people's lives."

Or as Fernandez, who is half sports junkie and half tech entrepreneur, puts it: "We could have just written a check and left it at that. We wanted to do more."

-- Thomas Heath

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