Ted Leonsis Snags a New Title
Text by Buzz McClain / Photography by Jonathan Timmes
To hear Ted Leonsis tell it, the title “vice president emeritus of AOL” doesn’t keep an executive very busy.
“It means you be nice to us and we’ll be nice to you, but we won’t give you anything to do,” he says with a wry smile. “So I’m retired from there. But I had a nice long run with them.”
As if he needed more to do. These days the entrepreneur spends his time overseeing his NHL franchise, the Washington Capitals; owning four businesses in Northern Virginia; working with AOL co-founder and longtime friend Steve Case in his Revolution LLC group of enterprises; and administering his considerable efforts for charities.
And if that’s not enough, add to that mix his newest role of “filmanthropist.” It’s a word he coined after his first experience as a movie producer in 2007.
At 52, Leonsis is the picture of casual elegance, in a black suit jacket over a starched white shirt with matching white pocket square, made all the whiter by his golf-course tan and his jet black hair. He’s serene, and he speaks in a measured manner, a trait that would immediately put anyone speaking with him at ease.
“I soon realized that the film business is a very tough business,” Leonsis says, later describing the industry as “an evil empire that is mangled and broken.” “If you were entering it to make money or a career out of it, you’d probably leave unfulfilled … so I created this term, ‘filmanthropy.’”
The filmanthropist eschews the box office for the greater good—although a nice run in theaters wouldn’t hurt. “If you develop a ‘second bottom line’—I want to right a wrong, I want to shine light on a very tough subject, I want to activate volunteering, I want to create a platform for charitable giving—then you go ahead and do the film, just like I make investments as a philanthropist in helping a charity,” he explains.
But instead of subjecting his films and the work of others to the sputtering, suspicious machinery of Hollywood, Leonsis has created a new distribution model, SnagFilms.com. He envisions a day when the existing 5,000 physical movie theaters in the country are supplemented by millions of virtual theaters, all of them showing high caliber non-fiction films. Each of the films will have a public service component and a call to action: the second bottom line.
And all of those documentaries—eventually “tens of thousands of movies,” Leonsis estimates—will be free to the theater owner.
And anyone has the potential of being one of those owners.
“If you have a web page, a Facebook page, a MySpace page, a blog, you can now open a virtual theater and show a movie to help a filmmaker and a cause,” Leonsis says. “That’s what SnagFilms is all about. … There are thousands and thousands of really good films that are made that have nowhere to go.”
Leonsis himself has produced one such film, “Nanking.”
This new involvement in movies is no mere hobby for the entrepreneur. “Hobbies to me tend to be things on the side,” he says. “I’ve made a couple of investments where I’m not deeply connected to the company or its goals or its mission. I’m tending now not to do those anymore. They don’t bring me joy. If they make money, terrific, but I’m more into passion and being connected and being in love with the mission of the company. Most of the businesses I get connected to do have this double bottom line.”
It was with this mindset he made “Nanking,” a topic that found him rather than the other way around. Having exhausted his supply of reading material while vacationing in 2004 on the French-speaking Caribbean island of St. Barts, Leonsis found himself in a bookstore. All that was available in English, Leonsis said, “was about 90 days worth of old New York Times.” Desperate, he took them.
When he got to the Nov. 12 issue he spotted the obituary of a woman named Iris Chang.
“There was a picture of her and the headline said: ‘Noted Historian and Author Dies.’ She’d written a book called ‘The Rape of Nanking’ and won all sorts of awards; buried in about the third paragraph it said she’d taken her own life. The next paragraph said she’d been married and had a child. And it just hit me, why would this beautiful woman, married and with a child, take her own life?”
(Chang, suffering chronic depression, shot herself at age 36 in her car near San Jose, Calif.)
The newspaper ended up in the wastebasket as he headed out the door, but some haunting urge compelled him to rescue it. A later Google search sent Leonsis to Amazon.com and to “The Rape of Nanking.” “And you know how you go to Amazon and it says if you like this book you’ll like this book? I ended up ordering three books.” He read them all in a single rainy weekend.
What he discovered to his horror was one of the most atrocious war crimes in history, in which the Japanese army invaded the then-Chinese capital in 1937 and executed, according to Chang’s figures, 300,000 civilians in six weeks; 20,000 females from the elderly to infants were raped, often in front of family members. The savagery was unspeakable, and nearly forgotten.
Remarkably, some 15 Westerners living and working in Nanking remained in the city to protect the citizens, very few of whom they saved. This touched Leonsis profoundly. “I remember closing my eyes and saying, What would I have done? You’re halfway around the world, an invading army is coming to occupy your city, your government sends planes and boats to get you out and you decide to stay … I would hope I would have stayed, but who knows?”
Leonsis combined a journalist’s inquisitiveness with a mogul’s resources and produced the 2007 documentary, which features Woody Harrelson, Jurgen Prochnow and Mariel Hemingway reading from documents by the Western eyewitnesses, interspersed with vintage film clips and new interviews with victims. It’s a singularly wrenching journey.
But few saw it, despite winning an editing award at the Sundance Film Festival. Leonsis is proud of both of his productions, which also includes “Kicking It,” about the Homeless World Cup soccer tournament, screened at Sundance.
“It’s harder to get into Sundance than it is to Harvard,” Leonsis says. “I’m not kidding.”
As for the first bottom line, “‘Nanking’ did about $2 million in box office worldwide,” Leonsis recalls. “That means 200,000 people saw the film.”
Far more than that will see it when it eventually becomes available via SnagFilms.com, which had 30 million unique visitors in its first month. SnagFilms.com, with offices in Arlington and Manhattan, is a portal through which all those forgotten and fringe documentaries finally find an audience, and perhaps turn a buck for all people involved.
“Give us your film and we will turn it into a film widget, and then a charity component will be built around it and consumers can come to our site and watch the film and if they like it they can grab it and embed it into their page—literally open a virtual movie theater,” Leonsis invites. “And your friends can watch the movie, and if they like it they can embed it.”
(A “widget” is a piece of media compressed and reduced down to an easily-transferable graphic; click the graphic and the media begins playing.)
SnagFilms sells short commercials that punctuate the downloaded movies; 50 percent of that revenue goes to the filmmaker whose movie is downloaded.
In July 2008, its first month in business, SnagFilms “opened” some 8,000 virtual movie theaters, with consumers snagging titles from a list of about 300. “We have 700 films under contract, and my expectation is that we’ll end up with tens of thousands of movies,” Leonsis predicts. “And I’m hoping one day we’ll have millions of theaters.”
Shooting for Ever-Changing Goals
One of the popular tabs on Ted Leonsis’ personal website, TedsTake.com, is “My 101 List.” The “bucket list” was created after surviving an airplane crash in 1981. “There was nothing peaceful about the experience,” Leonsis says of his brush with his mortality. “All of a sudden I’m faced with death and I start praying to God, ‘Please, please let me live, I promise I’ll do good, I’ll always live on the offense, I’ll make it worth your while to make me live!’ So I made this list that was very stream of consciousness of when I finally do die, how will I know I made the most of this second chance?”
It’s your usual, if singularly overreaching, list of things to do before you die: Fall in love and get married (check); Pay off college debts (check); Own a jet (check); Get a hole-in-one (unchecked); Net worth of $100 million, after taxes (check)—but now, “as I look back on it, it’s shallow. It’s a shallow list.”
He’s come to realize “what makes for happiness and self-actualization isn’t the filling out of those 101 things. To me it now comes down to five things.”
Still, “every time I come to a par 3 on the golf course, I think: Is today the day I can cross that [hole-in-one] off my list?”
“Be a very active participant in multiple communities of interest,” Leonsis says. “Engaging and getting involved in multiple worlds is important. Being connected is a very important part of that journey.”
“Have self-expression. There’s a reason there are 77 million blogs out there. It’s people saying, Listen to me, hear what I have to say.”
“Really tune up your empathy. People with high levels of empathy and who show gratitude for things tend to live happier lives. Empathy is probably the human trait and emotion that’s least appreciated. It’s what keeps me from slapping you in the face.”
“Giving back and being a part of something is a regular part of your life. People who are involved with church and charities tend to have the best family lives and the best marriages.”
“Be in pursuit of a higher calling. I didn’t want to make a movie that was shown in theaters; I wanted to shed light on a very tough subject and made filmanthropy and now I have SnagFilms. Finding the higher calling is one of the most important drivers to self-act.”