SnagFilms: Best Thing for Documentaries Since Netflix

Originally in: GigaOm's NewTeeVee.com

July 25, 2008

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Last week’s splashy entry into the online video arena of SnagFilms, a widget platform for watching and sharing documentary films that’s being headed up by a troika of ex-AOL executives (Ted Leonsis, Steve Case, Miles Gilburne), did not escape widespread (and warm) notice. But in addition to signaling a fresh way of thinking about the online video space, SnagFilms offers up a business model that may represent the most notable advance in the documentary film industry since Netflix.

The biggest challenge facing the feature-length documentary filmmaker has long been distribution and promotion. Even with the use of distributors, the documentary cinema circuit remains small, fixed and extremely competitive — and the opportunities for screening a film a few years after its premiere are even more limited. Increasingly, however, consumers are becoming aware of the long tail of the larger content inventories available via the web. The long tail is particularly important in the documentary world, especially for films without traditional promotional budgets: It both extends the shelf life of filmmaker revenues and entices more social discovery and community discussion, bringing greater attention to lesser-known docs.

SnagFilms movies are free to watch — and thanks to its widget extension, made that much more attractive to viral discovery by users far afield of the site itself. Ads, including pre-rolls, are streamed at eight-minute intervals, with revenues split 50/50 between SnagFilms and the filmmaker or VOD rights owner. Like Jaman, SnagFilms offers free viewing and notionally unlimited audiences, but the focus is docs. And like other online documentary sites, such as B-Side and Filmaka, the titles are not tilted to indie or pro-am filmmakers; SnagFilms’ focus is documentary film fans, not emerging filmmakers per se.

The Washington-based SnagFilms is, according to paidContent’s Staci Kramer, launching with less than $10 million in initial funding, but it is rapidly positioning itself as a primary destination for documentary film fans. On its first day, SnagFilms also acquired the venerable and well-regarded indieWIRE, a 12-year-old social hub and resource for independent filmmakers online. Rather than absorbing the site, SnagFilms will maintain indieWIRE as a separate and editorially independent authority, while making the editors’ recommended titles available for viewing via SnagFilms.

With indieWIRE, SnagFilms can get a head start in trying to overcome what is currently its most pressing obstacle: rapidly expanding its miniscule 250-title library. Scaling its film inventory will be critical to meeting community expectations, and since, unlike YouTube, SnagFilms does not permit user-generated content, it will need to make good on the promise that there is a mother lode of professional, high-quality films waiting to be discovered, acquired and exhibited through SnagFilms.

In fact the genius of SnagFilms is its reliance on not user-generated content but what Leonsis refers to as “user-distributed content.” Fans become content curators by displaying the film’s widget — on their blog, Facebook profile, almost anywhere online — and allowing other users to view it, free of charge, extending the revenue-generating life of the film through advertising, while also displaying their film interests. A charity donation widget is available as well, as is a mechanism for DVD sales. For now, the widget pushes users to an AOL-powered video player, but according to the WSJ’s Walt Mossberg, SnagFilms is looking to address in-widget streaming as well.

The social delivery of media via widgets has been a notable element in the success of YouTube and of Hulu. One blogger, reacting to SnagFilms’ launch, went so far as to call it a “Hulu for documentaries.” Insofar as its model of content distribution goes, SnagFilms should be credited for recognizing the ascendance of content curators. In the future, film fans who are, say, bloggers will function much as distributors or promoters do now for many industry filmmakers, except they will provide virtual screenings of films they like, and not for a fee. The more trafficked the blogger’s recommended film, the greater the potential impact on the its revenue.

Exactly what kind of influence will these curators wield? “The Oscar-winning documentary of 2007 did $250,000 at the box office, which means that only 25,000 people saw it,” Leonsis explained to USA Today. While it is unclear how ad revenue compares to ticket sales, a Jason Kottke-endorsed documentary is bound to achieve a level of visibility and accessibility unattainable to all but the most recent, high-budget and big-name documentary titles.

SnagFilms’ launch also puts the matter of VOD rights squarely into focus. Scott Kirsner of CinemaTech, an industry blog that first broke advance notice of SnagFilms, speculates that “many better-known films may be kept off the site because they’ve promised their digital/VOD rights to someone else.”

The long and short of SnagFilms’ potential for success will hinge on its community play. If passionate doc fans clamor to SnagFilms, and a countless number of virtual Sundance Festivals bloom, it may be content curators — an army of Robert Redfords — making the greatest difference of all.

Jeffrey MacIntyre is a New York-based freelance journalist and interactive media specialist.

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