Leonsis venture offers 250 titles

Former AOL vice chairman Ted Leonsis believes he has a cure for documentary films’ box office blues in his new Web distrib outlet, SnagFilms.

The site is set to launch in a beta version today with 250 titles; the aim is to expand with thousands more. Netco is backed by ex-AOL chief Steve Case and venture capitalist Miles Gilburne.

Additionally, SnagFilms has acquired New York-based IndieWire, the independent film newswire, social network and hub. The deal to buy IndieWire from publisher GMD Studios, which built the website, was in the works for six months and closed Tuesday night, the anniversary of IndieWire’s 12th birthday.

Snag combines Hulu-style free streaming with social networking in that films stream for free but can also be shared or posted to Facebook pages or blogs.

The sharing aspect of Snag derives from the widgets created by Clearspring Technology, a separate company of which Leonsis is board chairman. Several Hollywood studios have partnered with Clearspring recently to make trailer widgets that provide tentpoles with wide exposure online.

Distribs supplying films to Snag include PBS, National Geographic, IndiePix, Arts Alliance America and Koch Lorber. Noteworthy titles include “Super Size Me,” “Paper Clips” and “Dig!”

Because docs often tackle social issues or discrete topics that tie into the blogosphere, the company expects to generate a lot of viral viewings and thus to sell a lot of ads and promote a lot of causes.

Buttons on the screen next to the streaming film will allow viewers to donate to a linked charity or buy a DVD of the pic.

“This was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” said Leonsis, who has produced docs including “Nanking” and “Kicking It,” both of which earned a lot of critical and fest praise but lean B.O. coin. “How is it that a documentary deemed successful might have 25,000 people see it, when a video some kid creates in his bedroom gets 2 million views on YouTube?”

Because, by Leonsis’ count, only about 500 U.S. theaters will even show typical docs, “we wanted to empower everyone to open their own movie theaters,” the exec said.

Initial plans call for 90 seconds of ads to unspool before the feature; those ads will follow the film around the Web to wherever it gets posted. Ad revenue will be shared with filmmakers.

The result will be akin to, but not a replica of, True Stories, the longform doc site that Leonsis and others launched under the AOL umbrella.

“We’re not trying to build a destination site,” explained former National Geographic and Discovery Communications exec Rick Allen, who first teamed with Leonsis on “Kicking It” and will now be Snag’s chief exec. “We believe everyone will want to make these films their own and share them with others.”

The recently adverse theatrical climate for docs is a potential boon for the site, Leonsis argued.

“Content wants to be distributed,” Leonsis said. “There is a long tail of docs out there with avid supporters and a significant level of interest that just can’t succeed through traditional distribution channels.”

IndieWire will supply SnagFilms with archival content, news, analysis, blogs and film reviews. IndieWire will also feature SnagFilms’ virtual movie theater widgets, including IndieWire editorial picks from the SnagFilms library.

Financial arrangements were not disclosed.

SnagFilms will also provide new resources to grow IndieWire, which will retain its editorial autonomy, which editor-in-chief and co-founder Eugene Hernandez insisted be spelled out in the deal. IndieWire will continue to operate as an independent, standalone website. Leonsis also named Hernandez as editorial VP of SnagFilms, overseeing news content on both sites. Continuing to work with Hernandez are his two fulltime IndieWire staffers, Brian Brooks and James Israel.

“We hope to continue to do what we do, better,” said Hernandez, “not by just putting more resources to editorial. IndieWire has become a hub for independent film and now more than ever, with indie films under assault, this deal only makes sense if we can find a way to bolster IndieWire as a hub for the independent film community and to help support it.”

To that end Hernandez’s first goal is to build its social network of 10,000 indie filmmakers.

Leonsis considers IndieWire to be an “indispensable resource,” he said. “Eugene Hernandez and GMD Studios have built a great franchise that is completely in synch with what we’re doing with SnagFilms.Together, IndieWire and SnagFilms can offer everything the industry and consumers need to know about these important films, while also giving viewers an opportunity to see and share the films they love,” Leonsis added.

“Today, the sector faces the most unprecedented changes it has seen in the 12-plus years I have worked with filmmakers,” said SnagFilms CEO Allen. “And that’s why it’s the perfect time to extend the celebrated perspective, passion and analytic power of IndieWire.”

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