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 […]

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.