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NHL owner Leonsis full of stories

September 23, 2007|Joseph White | Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- One moment, Ted Leonsis shakes his head over Britney Spears' flawed performance at the "terrible" Video Music Awards, then he offers an analysis of how MTV has missed an opportunity to reinvent itself.

Soon afterward, he is captivating a room with the story of how he become preoccupied with a World War II-era massacre in China, leading him to make the Sundance award-winning documentary "Nanking" and consider launching a movie studio that will specialize in what he calls "filmanthropy."

A year after quitting his day job as an executive at AOL, where he made his fortune, the 51-year-old Internet pioneer is reaping the rewards of a successful life. He can dabble in whatever strikes his fancy, whether it's movies, his NHL team, checking off items on his list of 101 things to do before he dies, or -- what else would you expect from an online pioneer? -- his daily blog.

"I would say the last 12 months have been some of the best times of my life," Leonsis said.

Want to know what Leonsis is up to? Google him, he says. Sure enough, his "Ted's Take" blog comes up No. 1 -- because he knows the tricks of the trade, keeping it topical, updating it frequently and creating links so that the search engines will always find it first. From there, one can learn about All Things Ted -- his bios, his favorite Web sites, his budding moviemaking career, his opinions and, of course, the famous to-do list, composed during the terrifying moments of a 1987 flight to Atlanta when plane troubles forced a dicey landing.

So far, he's checked off 75 of the 101 items, everything from winning an Emmy (AOL received one for its Web broadcast of the Live 8 concert) to owning a yacht. Some, such as "go into outer space" and "win a world championship" will be a bit more difficult to achieve.

More than anything, Leonsis is a master communicator, and those who know him say it's easy to understand how the gregarious son of Greek immigrants became such a success.

"He is among the best storytellers that I have ever met anywhere in the world," said Raul Fernandez, chairman of ObjectVideo and member of the Leonsis-led group that owns the NHL's Washington Capitals. "He's a renaissance man on steroids. He has such a compassionate side that's very visible."

But Leonsis doesn't care much for how many stories are told today. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, he took his shots against mainstream media. He railed against the overexposure of celebrities like Spears, as well as the generic "lazy journalist" who writes about the struggles of the NHL for the newspaper industry, which he notes has problems of its own.

His Capitals have lost tens of millions of dollars, he acknowledges, but the team is worth more than twice the $85 million he paid for it in 1999. The value will only increase if the team, which Leonsis has slowly rebuilt after initially overspending for players, returns to the playoffs this season for the first time since 2003.

"I have to laugh," Leonsis said, "because we get slammed by newspapers or frankly even some new media properties, and I go, 'Our salary cap has grown from $39 million to $50 million in two years.' Whose shoes would you rather be in?"

That doesn't stop Leonsis from blogging and talking about Spears, although he puts it in the context of watching the MTV awards show with his 15-year-old daughter.

"The show was terrible," Leonsis said. "When my daughter, who's, like, their demo[graphic], says 'That's it for me, Dad, I'm going to bed,' you know it's really missed the mark."

Leonsis said MTV should have realized that the Internet is replacing television as a source of music for teens and moved in that direction. Ideally, Leonsis said, MTV should have been the creator of iTunes.

"You're either playing offense and reinventing and moving forward," Leonsis said. "Or you're getting crushed and you're playing defense and you're contracting."

Leonsis' latest big story has stoked passions around the world. "Nanking," which won a prize for editing at the Sundance Film Festival in January, features Woody Harrelson and Mariel Hemingway and chronicles one of the worst massacres in modern history. In 1937 and 1938, the Japanese military slaughtered, depending whom you ask, 150,000 to 350,000 Chinese civilians. Thousands of women were raped.

The movie, described by critics as "powerful" and "deeply affecting," is scheduled for release in U.S. theaters in December. Chinese filmmakers are now working on their own projects about the atrocities, and a Japanese filmmaker has announced plans for a rebuttal movie.

The story of how Leonsis came to make the film is compelling in its own right. He had run out of things to read while on vacation in St. Barts, and all he could find in English at the local bookstore were old copies of The New York Times. He started reading the papers in their entirety and came across an obituary for author Iris Chang, who committed suicide in November 2004 at the age of 36.

"I just remember saying, 'What would be so bad that this beautiful woman with kids would take her own life. . . put a gun to her head?' "

The next day, he threw the newspaper in the garbage. But the page with the obituary ended up on top, and Chang's picture stared at him every time he walked by.

"As we were leaving to go to dinner, the cleaning crew was coming in to clean up the room, and literally as we were walking out I said to my wife, 'Just wait one second,' " Leonsis said. "And I ran back and I reached in the garbage and I pulled out the obituary."

When Leonsis got home, he researched Chang on the Internet. He read her book, "The Rape of Nanking," and then other books on the topic. He become enthralled, hired 38 people to travel the world to research the massacre and soon found himself producing his first film.

"I just fell in love with the story," Leonsis said. "My wife says I became obsessed with the story."

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