Despite Its Pedigree, Snagfilm Gets Too Much Wrong

What happened to the guy who way back in the early ’90s proclaimed: “Digitize or die”?

Ted Leonsis was a guy after my own heart. In the early '90s, he stunned a bunch of suits at a Boston Globe management retreat when he took the stage and barked, “Digitize or die,” and his obsession for original online programming helped move AOL from powerhouse to behemoth.

Paradoxically, AOL was also the worst thing about the internet for what seemed like ever until it finally gave up on its wildly obnoxious walled garden approach. At AOL, Leonsis was a virtual studio head and he eventually produced a couple of films himself.

Each was a documentary with a social conscience; “Nanking,” based on the book “The Rape of Nanking” about atrocities committed by the Japanese army during WWII, and “Kicking It” about the Homeless World Cup. (Yes, there’s a Homeless World Cup.) He even coined a phrase for his brand of filmmaking: filmanthropy. (I know, yuck.) 

So it came as no surprise when Leonsis and a couple of his AOL buddies decided to launch a website dedicated to the online distribution of docs. What is surprising is how little positive influence Snagfilms has had on the general population, on people’s appreciation for documentary or on the regeneration of the independent film community.

According to Snag’s widely covered press release last week, they boast “the web’s largest library of high-quality nonfiction films” clocking in at over 1,500 titles. Yet, whenever I’ve asked a civilian whether they’re aware of Snagfilms, I’m invariably met with a blank stare. Even many independent film insiders I’ve asked don’t know much or anything about Snag. How can that be? 

First of all, there’s the AOL factor. The company was founded by Leonsis and former AOL and AOL/Time Warner Chairman Steve Case. Leonsis may have been largely responsible for seeding the web with original programming and an early influencer in making internet users comfortable with consuming entertainment online, but AOL was the most prosaic, oppressive, user-unfriendly destination site ever.

And God help you if you ever wanted to escape their evil clutches. Canceling  your AOL subscription was more frustrating and complex than plugging BP’s oil “leak.”

Then there’s the fact that Leonsis and Snagfilms’ CEO Rick Allen are sports guys, not movie guys. They may dabble in film and coin awkward-sounding catchphrases, but Leonsis’ Lincoln Holdings owns all or part of not one, not two, but three professional sports franchises (plus a stadium) and Allen was president and CEO of the hallowed Sporting News. He was also head of National Geographic and an executive at Discovery, so he’s got some documentary cred. 

Neither their sports history nor captain-of-industry careers make them bad people, of course. In fact, their philanthropic and other extracurricular pursuits indicate the opposite. But the problem, I think, is a collective AOL mentality. Aside from the Leonsis and Case connection, a captain of the ship is Stephanie Sharis former executive of … wait for it … AOL. Again, doesn’t make her a bad person. Plus, like Leonsis and Allen, she’s been a producer on two docs; a short and a feature.

AOL was all about aggregating content and content aggregators’ bread and butter is advertising. Not, of course, advertising or promoting or marketing the product itself, but selling advertising against the product. Thus, when you land on Snag, what’s at the very top of the page right next to the company logo and three times as large? Advertising! Cheesy banner ads flogging everything from car insurance to massage schools plus a few major brands thrown in for good measure. Kinda like going to the movies, but it’s the thing that people hate most about going to a movie theater.

Not a great start or an indication that Snag’s focus is on their 1,500 “high-quality” films.

Then there’s the incredibly distracting video ad placed prominently "above the fold" and flush right. Prime location and awesome for the advertiser; not so much for the user. And if you scroll down below the fold, there’s another nearly as distracting large animated banner button there to greet you. These ads, though, are child’s play compared to the outrageous browsing scheme the company is following for achieving optimal ad exposure. 

Any time you click an image in order to go to that film’s detailed information page, you’re forced to either watch or ignore a 15-to-30-second ad that starts up automatically. On a site like Snag, a user typically can hit half a dozen information pages before settling on the film they want to view, and each time an ad immediately autoplays.

I’ve never seen a more anti-consumer, self-destructive ad policy in my life. It’s shameful, but not unexpected given the professional genealogy of the folks in charge. (Even Hulu’s browse function is more user-friendly. There, you can mouse over the title of a show and be presented with a synopsis rather than having to click for the information,thereby launching an ad.)

It’s true that they also stream movies, but because Snag’s is an ad-supported business model, 30-second pre-roll video ads lead into every presentation and additional video ads intrude on the flowabout every eight minutes. I can’t speak for all the films, but in two that I watched in their entirety recently, the ads more often than not popped up in mid-sentence.

Even in viewing “Super Size Me,” the site’s major claim to fame, the very first ad pops in mid-sentence. Imagine being a filmmaker who’s spent a year or three pouring everything you’ve got into making the very best documentary you could, only to have it chopped up on a website cluttered with advertising. Now imagine premiering your film on that site.

There’s also virtually no community building going on. No real discussion. No real conversation. Snag’s version of community is YouTube-inspired commenting and the reposting of tweets.In other words, the absolute least they can do and still pretend to be a place where their users “participate in a community.” Their technology is pretty hinky, too. For instance, moving to and from full-screen mode can cause agita ranging from missing a few frames to the film entirely restarting itself.

There’s no excuse for bad tech implementation two years in and especially not when you’ve been financed to the tune of millions of dollars. We provided a much better user experience at Gigantic Digital on little more than a wing and a prayer.

For now, I guess any site that helps wean people off the withering teet of theatrical distribution is a positive influence. Unfortunately, Snag could be doing so much more and so much better that it was depressing to see the extent of yesterday’s press coverage.

The New York Times driving lots of fresh traffic to Snag’s website is not helpful. It’s not positive. Those new users are being exposed to much the worst of what’s possible, not the best. (I’m not speaking of the quality of the films, here, so save your flames.)

When Leonsis roared “digitize or die” back in the '90s, it was prescient and exhilarating. Looking back on that statement today, he may as well have shouted "Digitize then die"for all that Snagfilms has accomplished in two years. C’mon,Ted, don’t be a regressive, uninspired film guy like your fellow sports franchise owner Mark Cuban. Be progressive. Be bold.

Light an independent fire for the future, Ted!

(Editor's Note: This blog originally was posted on July 28, but removed because of claims of inaccuracy. There have been minor corrections made to the piece.")