Leonsis newest 'filmanthropist' at Sundance
This month, Leonsis stepped away from active management at AOL, serving instead as adviser and "visionary," but even before then he had taken on a new role as documentary film producer. His first film, "Nanking," landed a coveted documentary competition slot at the Sundance Film Festival. And as befits a brainy innovator, Leonsis has new ideas about how to distribute a docu in the Internet age.
For piquing his interest in filmmaking, Leonsis credits fellow dot-com entrepreneur Andrew Jarecki, who directed "Capturing the Friedmans" after making his fortune with Moviefone. Leonsis offered Jarecki a "shoulder to lean on," he said, "and he played the same role for me. I saw what he did and how much fun he had."
Of course, it helps to have deep pockets. Leonsis hired Oscar-winning docu directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman ("The Twin Towers") to bring to life his vision of a movie that would reveal what really happened when the Japanese invaded China's former capitol city Nanking in 1937. "It's not your family light comedy for your first film," Leonsis said.
Leonsis was on Christmas vacation in St. Bart's in 2005 when he ran out of reading material and picked up a stack of old New York Times issues to read. He saved an obit about the suicide of Iris Chang, the 36-year-old mother of two and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller "The Rape of Nanking," which revealed the terrible facts of what happened to her grandparents and 200,000 others who did not survive the massacre. About 20,000 Chinese women were raped during the first six weeks of the Japanese invasion.
Chang's story haunted Leonsis; he read her book and researched the subject online. "It was terrifying, sobering and so sad," he said. "Japan never apologized for or acknowledged what happened. It's the forgotten holocaust."
Leonsis was particularly struck by the story of eight Western missionaries who stayed behind at great personal risk and created a safety zone that saved the lives of about 250,000 Chinese. "Those Westerners played a pivotal role; they're admired in China, where they are considered divine angels of mercy," he said.
Guttentag and Sturm scoured China and Japan for 80 Nanking survivors; a dozen appear in the film. One man who was 9 during the invasion recounts a heartbreaking narrative about how his baby brother crawled across ground littered with bloody carcasses to reach his dying mother and breastfeed as she bled on him. Other women describe their rapes. Japanese soldiers remember their deeds as well.
A chilling example of the horrors of war, "Nanking" also is inspiring. Because the missionaries who stayed behind are long gone, the filmmakers staged a reading of their letters, diaries and journals with a group of actors. "I was shocked by how articulate, emotional and precise and poetic these words were," said Leonsis, who enlisted CAA to help cast the film with actors including Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway and the riveting Jurgen Prochnow as big-hearted German businessman John Rabe. The heroes they play were driven by a higher sense of moral purpose, Leonsis said. "We found actors who could look and sound like them. You forget they're Mariel Hemingway or Jurgen Prochnow. They become that person."
One potential audience for the movie: 14 million Chinese-Americans. "This is a big movie for the Chinese, a big part of their history," Leonsis said. "There are 100 million people on the Internet in China and 1.5 billion around the world. I believe this will be like 'The Passion of the Christ,' where every Chinese-American sees this story." He hopes it also will be seen in Japan. "It's not anti-Japanese," he added. "It's anti-war."
Leonsis, who paid for the movie himself and owns all rights, is hoping for a theatrical release, followed by DVD, TV and cable sales. Then he wants people to find the movie online. He plans to create a "Nanking" portal full of material about the movie, where people can download the film for free. "I'm not worried about piracy," he said. "I want people to share the movie." How will he do this? "We'll get a sponsor," he said.
After Leonsis recoups costs, he'll give the profits to charity, he promised, saying, "Call me a filmanthropist."