We've Got Hollywood Covered

Rick Allen Gets Grilled

Documentary films find virtual theaters on the SnagFilm web site.

What is Snagfilms and why did you create the company?


This is a company that I set up with Ted Leonsis who was most recently the vice chairman of the board of AOL. Ted brought in Steve Case, and Miles Gilburne, the head of AOL International. Ted produced two films, the first , ‘Nanking,’ which was shortlisted for the Academy Awards in 2007. And the second we worked on together called “Kicking It,” another documentary we took it to Sundance and Tribeca and a number of festivals in 2008 and sold it to ESPN and took it out on a limited run, did the deal with Netflix, did all sorts of things.


So both films were kind of big successes judged by the normal metrics of the independent film world. And yet the notion that a piece of content that you believed in, a film, at the end of the day through traditional distribution models reached very few people and a small percentage of what he believed to be its potential audience. And clearly had limited revenue possibilities because of it.


He did his TV deal for “Nanking,” we did the TV deal with ESPN for “Kicking It.” Still, it had limited audience and limited monetization. Still, we were the big winners. And the year that we took “Kicking It” to Sundance, they had roughly 9,000 films submitted. Of 118 in the festival, 38 of them were docs. Only 7 of us had deals coming out of Sundance. And we had 3 coming out. So if we’re the top of the food chain, what does that mean for all the rest of the filmmakers, many of whom which were every bit as good as ours?


So what’s the new idea of the service?


We felt that, first, you had to find a new way of reaching audiences and had to add an additional revenue stream or filmmakers were going to be frustrated and ultimately unable to do their work. And audiences really had a hunger for nonfiction programming and different ways of finding a way to that programming.


Secondly, Ted came up with this concept of filmanthropy. And filmanthropy … is really the combination of the powers of the communications medium and film making, particularly nonfiction and documentaries, which tend to be about issues. And telling  that audience … ‘You can be a philanthropist. You can give money and time. You can also give pixels.’ And that really was part of the breakthrough.


We decided we would take each film and put it in the form of a virtual movie theatre. When you load the film page, you have the player which is AOL’s near-HD player, it goes to full screen, has a 15-second pre-roll ad which is sold by AOL. And we split the ad revenue stream with the filmmaker.


How does a viewer decide what to download? And how many ads are there per film?


The ability to sample for free is extremely attractive to get to know the film and they may decide 15 minutes into the film, ‘I want to see this on a big screen, not a computer.’ Or, ‘I wanna watch it with friends,’ any number of things. We also have mid-roll, again 15 seconds every 8-10 minutes. So if you watch a 60 minutes films, you’d see 90 seconds worth of advertising.


Give us an example of a film that has made money on Snagfilms.


Well, every one of our films has made some money on SnagFilms. I’m not going to give you precise numbers. Up in that top tool bar it says most popular. So you can assume the films in that list are the ones that have been viewed the most and have made the most money. To some extent, obviously promotion matters.


In a sense, are the ones you promote those that stay on the top, and the other films get buried?


That hasn’t happened for a number of different reasons. This National Geographic film about Egypt, “Secrets of the Pharaohs,” had in the low hundreds of views. With the opportunity to pop it up on AOL News … we had 60,000 views over the next couple of weeks.


So from the perspective of a filmmaker, that’s 60,000 views, at a $20 cpm (clicks per thousand).


You’re going to ask me to walk through something which I consider to be proprietary. So I’m gonna let you do the math whichever you want to.


Well, that’s $1200.00, and he gets half of that. How much do they get off the DVDs?


The way Amazon does it, if you provide a sale to Amazon, you get 8.5% as an affiliate. That’s a bigger number and chunk for them. It’s also fewer people, more will watch for free.


How has your traffic been, since launching in July of last year?


More than half of our traffic is occurring off-site. By next week, our widgets  will have been on over 300 million web pages since the end of July — that’s a significantly  bigger number than what we had projected.


The single biggest distribution point for us has been AOL. We have had our films and our widgets on AOL in a range of different ways. We have a very close editorial relationship with them, where we meet weekly to talk about new films in our library and the promotional opportunities.


There’s also a direct relationship between the support function and the charitable effort. Someone gets engaged by the film, wants to be helpful, they can go directly out to that nonprofit and become engaged.


What’s your next target?


We’ve put together this distribution network of more than 20,000 websites now that have embedded a widget including The New York Times. The Washington Post has two theaters perpetually — one on the business side and one of their politics page. The business site picks a different film a week. The politics site now has 20 films. You can scroll through it and pick any of the entries.


Have you found that people are open to watching full-length documentaries online?


Oh yeah. And we knew that from AOL’s portal culture, which had done long-form for about a year and a half. These are all nonfiction films and overwhelmingly what you’d consider to be documentaries.


If you take a look at the average length of the view on web, it’s gone from 90 seconds, to three and a half minutes, to five minutes on average. Consumers’ attitudes have changed. But our films are viewed far longer than that.




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