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July 17, 2008

Documentaries Going Online

Does Snagfilm.com constitute hope for Hollywood? This has been a rough year for documentaries, which just a few years ago seemed to be on the verge of challenging feature films for space at the multiplex. Lately they've seemed doomed to the back of the Blockbuster bin. I don't know if this new service constitutes real hope, but Snagfilms.com launched today, opening up a desperately needed distribution window. The essential idea is to use blogs and social-networking sites to act as distributors of the films. And they've made it technologically very easy.

Basically, anyone with a Facebook page or a blog can download a widget that allows visitors to the site to click and view a documentary for free. It costs the viewer nothing. It also earns the blogger/Facebooker nothing. (They're calling it "filmanthropy!" Uh-oh, I hear eyes rolling over on Avenue of the Stars.) But there is money to be had; any ad revenues are shared by Snagfilms and the filmmaker. (Collective sigh at CAA.)

The service, which has 225 choices up right now, includes "Super Size Me," "Dig" and "Paper Clips." The company was founded by Ted Leonsis, the former AOL bigwig who in recent years has turned to producing documentaries and apparently became frustrated with the shrinking possibilities for getting viewers in front of the films. Other backers were AOL's co-founder Steve Case, along with venture capitalist Miles Gilburne.

I called the International Documentary Association, and the president of the board, Diane Estelle Vicari, said she wasn’t sure the service would make money. But she was delighted the service had launched. “We have been waiting for this for a long time. I think it’s fantastic,” she said. “Here at the IDA, we see an average of 350 films for a competition, maybe 10 of those films will get distribution. Very few films make it theatrically. The window of opportunity on television keeps shrinking.”

Here's my take: given the very modest level of ad rates online, I rather doubt this is a money-making proposition. Documentaries are cheap, but they still cost at minimum hundreds of thousands, and often into the $1-$5 million range. So far there is little evidence that online fans are inclined to pay for something when it is optional. So if the world of quality films is reduced to "filmanthropy," then I worry for the future of quality film.


Rick Allen

Sharon: Thanks for writing on the launch of our new company – and even more, for showcasing one of our virtual movie theaters with the Super Size Me widget. While your description of the essential elements of the service are terrific, there are a couple of misperceptions I think you may have:
1) We aren’t offering SnagFilms as the panacea for the broken business model that independent films face with traditional distribution. We do believe that adding a new revenue stream, and a delivery method that is unconstrained by shelf space and perfectly designed to find and serve a core audience and then expand to scale, must be seen as promising and additive.
2) You have written “So far there is little evidence that online fans are inclined to pay for something when it is optional.” Particularly for documentaries, which are traditionally largely unknown by most of a public which would nonetheless find them of interest, consumer-pay has not succeeded in paying back the production investment you describe. We believe that free-to-consumer, ad-supported, economics are inherently more likely to lead to viewer exploration and trial, and better filmmaker returns. As to the “modest level of ad rates online”, AOL (who sells our ads) is achieving CPMs for in-video ads comparable to what cable television commands. I remember the disdain with which cable in its early years was treated by traditional broadcasters, and now it receives the larger slice of the television ad pie. Online ad sales have achieved near pricing parity (for comparable full-video formats) in record time.
So: filmmakers should maximize their options. And we at SnagFilms will keep working hard to indeed constitute hope for an indie sector we love.
Rick Allen
CEO, SnagFilms

Les Guthman

Sharon, I have four documentaries on SnagFilms. Each was produced in concert with a major non-profit: "The Hudson Riverkeepers" and "The Waterkeepers" document Robert F. Kennedy Jr's environmental work over the last 25 years; "Churning the Sea of Time" looks at the World Monument Fund's leadership in restoring Angkor in the post-Khmer Rouge Era; and "The Yunnan Great Rivers Expedition" documents the work of the Nature Conservancy in a remote and spectacular corner of China. Three have aired on television and all four have made money. In the life of these films, SnagFilms' concept of "filmanthropy" is not insignificant. If viewers are moved by our films to contribute money to the extraordinary work we've documented, and Snag has made it beautifully easy to do so, that is not a trivial ancillary accomplishment for these productions. But I also believe it will be very good for business.

I don't think anyone doubts that the internet will change the distribution model for both documentaries and feature films, the way it has changed every other media business. SnagFilms has linked philanthropy to that changing business model, and that is a powerful idea, the audacity of hope linked with change in a different sector.

Les Guthman
CEO, XPLR Productions


Thank you for alerting me about this great tool. I've already 'snagged' Super Size Me since it fit right in with the theme of my current blog post. It had viewers shortly after posting it on my blog!

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