Can This Man (and His Millions) Save The Dying Genre Of Documentary Film?

Ted Leonsis never spent a dollar he didn't think would somehow change the world. And after generating a few billion at AOL, buying a hockey franchise and dabbling for a while in Web 2.0, it was just a matter of time before he jumped into movies, where change follows the money faster (and certainly more glamorously) than any other industry in which he hadn't already staked a claim. And, like untold scores of entrepreneurs before him, Leonsis's first couple tries — as producer of the documentaries Nanking and Kicking It — flailed in the marketplace. That'll happen.

Hence today's fairly seismic introduction of SnagFilms — Leonsis's own marketplace for a world that some think may have passed the documentary by. He isn't taking any chances, though, buying the film news outlet indieWIRE just in case and putting upwards of 700 feature docs under contract before today's launch. And suddenly, Leonsis's change has a whole new batch of industry careers at stake.

"Most of these films are created with a double-bottom-line in mind," Leonsis told us in a conversation today. "You want to activate discussion, and you want to activate charitable giving." He calls it "filmanthropy," and SnagFilms is intended to spur more by allowing bloggers and other Web publishers to embed full-length docs. Leonsis likens it to a theatrical model writ large, with 90 seconds of advertising per hour (sold by AOL, natch) generating revenue that Snag splits 50-50 with the filmmakers.

Except, of course, even bigger fish than Leonsis have tried and failed to monetize online video. And docs are proven box-office poison, with everyone from Oscar-winners Errol Morris and Alex Gibney to, of course, Leonsis himself, taking baths on acclaimed films in the last year. Leonsis acknowledged that despite current programming that includes Super Size Me and the Sundance hit Dig!, the majority of SnagFilms titles will come from distribution libraries on the "short end of the long tail" as well as fest-circuit faves that may not have made it into theatrical release. "We're a viable new window for a lot of films that are laying there collecting dust," he said.

Hardly music to advertisers' ears, right? Enter indieWIRE (where, full disclosure, this author interned for one grad-school semester in 2004), the influential 12-year-old Web site featuring news, blogs and social networking components for the indie film community. "While the market is going to have to develop, I do believe that some of their films ... suffer from limited availability," iW co-founder and editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez explained to us earlier. "And by connecting those films to the causes that people care about, I think Ted has hit on something unique."

And IndieWIRE is key to that connection, averaging around 500,000 unique visits per month and hosting nearly 11,000 members on its networking site indieLOOP. Meanwhile, iW gets an unspecified bump in resources for covering a niche it has almost entirely to itself — which may or may not emphasize SnagFilms' core product. The Hollywood Reporter placed the sale at under $1 million, though, provoking concern among territorial indie circles that indieWIRE is anything but, or worse yet, that Leonsis bought a house organ for a song.

Leonsis and Hernandez reject the claim outright, though one can sense the latter has lost more than a little sleep over it. "We put 12 years into this, and we didn't build this brand to undermine the integrity developed over the years." Hernandez said. "But at the same time, [I] wanted to find a partner. We almost sold the company a few times in recent years and in every single instance, if we had done the deal we could have been compromised or the acquirer is now out of business. ... I know that people will call us on it if we fuck up."

So: Grand experiment? Genre dumping ground? Either way, for better or worse (if still not for good) the doc is in.