Former AOL executives back documentary film site

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three former top executives of Time Warner Inc’s AOL are backing a new online video venture being launched on Thursday aimed at creating a new outlet for documentary feature films, a category that has struggled to gain mainstream attention.

A screen grab of REUTERS/

Founded by AOL Vice Chairman Emeritus Ted Leonsis, the site, SnagFilms, will offer about 200 feature-length films initially, with about 750 available by the end of the year.

Instead of relying on offering its films on other big Internet video portals such as AOL or Microsoft Corp’s MSN, SnagFilms will let its viewers embed films on their own home pages or Facebook and MySpace pages, relying on a strategy made popular by sites such as Google Inc’s YouTube.

The business is backed by Leonsis, AOL co-founder and Revolution LLC Chairman Steve Case and former AOL executive and former Time Warner board member Miles Gilburne, who is now a venture capitalist.

Former Discovery Communications executive Rick Allen is SnagFilms’s CEO.

The project was born out of Leonsis’s realization that documentary films, although abundant, have few options when it comes to being shown in theaters.

“I’m shocked at how broken the business infrastructure is,” Leonsis said in a telephone interview.

His documentary “Nanking,” about the Japanese invasion of the Chinese province, was eventually picked up for theatrical release, as well as distributed by Time Warner’s HBO cable network. But of the vast majority of the 7,000 entries at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where “Nanking” made its debut, only 120 films were selected for showing and about 10 actually snatched deals.

“There’s no way anyone will make money,” Leonsis said.

Over time, he expects the site to appeal to more viewers than traditional documentary buffs.

“Everyone has a camera in their telephone. Everyone’s growing up in a YouTube world,” Leonsis said. “Documentary reality based programming won’t be a niched (category), but a major way for self expression.”


Films on the service will be available for streaming on computers for free and will be subsidized by advertising. Half of the ad revenue will be split with filmmakers.

A big component of the service is filmmakers can link their video Web pages to charities of their choice. Director Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” page, for instance, provides links to GlobalGiving, a foundation that connects donors with projects.

As part of the launch, SnagFilms is also expected to announce it has acquired for an undisclosed sum, indieWIRE, a news, information and social network for the international independent film community, SnagFilms said in statement.

At the launch, SnagFilms will feature documentaries and videos from PBS, National Geographic, Sundance Preserve, Peter Jennings Productions, Arts Alliance and others.

AOL will provide the technical infrastructure and ad sales and will have the right to use SnagFilms content on AOL sites.

“You’re going to see lots of films that can’t see the light of day,” Leonsis added.

Editing by Andre Grenon