SnagFilms gives documentaries an online outlet

Serial entrepreneur and longtime AOL exec Ted Leonsis started producing documentaries, only to be aghast at how hard it is for most producers to get their movies distributed.

So he turned to the Internet for a solution. His SnagFilms, which makes its debut today, targets the social-networking crowd with a website that offers full-length documentaries that can be shared on blogs, websites and personal pages on Facebook and MySpace.

"Because everything is digital now, costs are down, quality is up, and we have this whole new generation of non-fiction filmmakers," says Leonsis, majority owner of two Washington, D.C.-area sports teams and chairman of SnagFilms. "There's more product but less distribution. I wanted to solve that problem."

Leonsis started SnagFilms with AOL founder Steve Case and venture capitalist Miles Gilburne.

He says the cut-and-paste simplicity of adding movies to your Web page is like "putting a movie theater directly onto your site. You choose the programming and present it to your audience."

Leonsis calls his new $10 million venture "filmanthropy" — a way to promote social causes to a worldwide audience. Each film on his site has links to donate to organizations and get involved. His 2007 documentary Nanking won awards at Sundance and from the Writers Guild of America. It deals with the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, during World War II.

SnagFilms is being launched with 250 films from such producers as National Geographic, PBS and IndiePix, and it includes the recent hit Super Size Me.

Unlike most online video sites, it's not open to user-generated content. Instead, professionally produced videos must be submitted and accepted. SnagFilms promises filmmakers 50% of advertising revenue. Each film has several ad slots.

"The Oscar-winning documentary of 2007 did $250,000 at the box office, which means that only 25,000 people saw it," Leonsis says. "Most videos on YouTube see at least 100,000 views, which would be like $1 million at the box office."

Phil Leigh, an analyst for Inside Digital Media, says the notion of putting Web content on a personal Web page or blog makes sites like Facebook and MySpace the "network affiliates" of the 21st century. "It's a real trend, and it's how content gets spread and seen by millions."

Bob Alexander, who runs independent film distributor IndiePix, calls SnagFilms a "brilliant" use of the Internet to reach people. "Getting 500,000 people into a theater to see your work is extremely difficult, if not impossible," he says. "But on the Internet, it can happen easily."

If advertising comes through, Alexander thinks producers will make roughly double what they get from cable TV exposure.

"The magic of a site like this is that films will reside online, around the world, and people can see them anytime they want," says producer Les Guthman, whose XPLR Films has four environmental films on SnagFilms.