On the eve of the launch of SnagFilms — as we signed a deal with Ted Leonsis — indieWIRE‘s Eugene Hernandez got on the phone for an hour to talk with Leonsis about Snag and the state of distribution today, particulary aimed at hearing more about how and why Snag came to be. The acquisition of iW came on our 12th anniversary, with more background available in our letter to the indieWIRE readers. With a clear inside track on our new parent company, it seemed like an opportunity to hear more about the plans for Snag in a bit of a different way.
The following are excerpts from this week’s conversation.
Eugene Hernandez: I’d love to hear, based on your experiences in filmmaking, where the idea for Snag Films began.
Ted Leonsis: Well truly this is a mash up, an entrepreneurial endeavor, in that we’ve connected the dots from several experiences that I have had as an executive at a new media company, AOL, to being an investor and chairman of the board of a widget syndication web 2.0 company called, Clearspring Technologies, and then being a producer of my own documentary films. And back in 2005 when I started work on “Nanking“, I was really blown away by the talent and the passion and the hard work that I saw in the independent film community. In fact, ironically, loving start-ups, I started to look at films like they were little start-up businesses.
As I saw more films being made and less films being distributed, that struck me as really being an issue and I was absolutely shocked, having grown up in the digital world, at how analog-based the theatrical business was. I didn’t feel that the films were being seen by a very big audience even though the films were being professionally marketed and brought out into the world.
I was talking to a friend about my frustration on how could we get our movie, “Kicking It,” distributed far and wide and it just hit me that what we should do is break through – why are there only 500 theatres that show these kinds of movies? Let’s shoot for the moon and get 5 million people to open virtual movie theatres. As you know, I’ve been articulating the concept of “filmanthropy.” And filmanthropy is finding these films that shine a light on a tough subject and activate discussion and charitable giving and volunteerism around a cause.
And I said, that’s the Big Idea, let’s go to consumers, let’s go to webmasters, let’s go to the 138 million MySpace users, the 100 million Facebook users, the 77 million bloggers of the world and say, “you can be a ‘filmanthropist.’ We don’t want you to donate time, we don’t need any money, we need you to donate pixels. And if you’ll give us pixels to open a digital movie theatre, we’ll stream the movies right on your sites.”
EH: You put it very well on your blog recently…you quoted the film “Network“…
TL: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
EH: I thought that encapsulated the spirit of this moment, and what I’m hearing from a lot of filmmakers, producers, directors, financiers…
TL: That’s right. This is an industry that is just filled with unbelievable creative talent, unbelievable product, and the system wasn’t built to support and distribute the amount of great product that’s out there. The Internet has unlimited shelf space…
The reason that so many YouTube videos have millions of views is not because that many people are going to YouTube and finding it. It’s because they go to their friends’ MySpace page and someone has grabbed a video and embedded it there. So that distribution model is so powerful, the mathematics, the geometry around the viral sharing and the ability for individuals to grab and embed and then have their friends come watch and then come share is what drove the growth of YouTube. So what we’re saying here is why don’t we take great content, well produced, well directed and unleash it the same way that this unprofessional content has been created and we’ll have a business model and we’ll get money back to the filmmakers. Plus we’ll have a lot of people watching the films and an outgrowth of there being a large audience will be lots of people signing up to help the cause, volunteering or donating money.
EH: Well, I think that last point you make is one that deserves reiteration. I’m a big fan of documentaries — but, I’m thinking about documentary filmmakers for a moment — there is a difference between filmmakers who pursue particular documentary topics and those who pursue particular stories and ultimately decide to tell them with a documentary. Because you’re not only hoping to recoup your investment, you’re also trying to reach a particular audience, touch a specific issue, showcase a story that might otherwise get overlooked, or has been overlooked in the media.
TL: That’s right. There’s even a further subtext there. Many documentaries will get funding from people who care about a cause or from foundations. And the reason the foundations or people who have a passion about a subject are investing in a film is they want and expect that people will see the movie. And when the industry starts to come to gridlock and movies aren’t being seen, the next shoe that will drop is that these films won’t get financed in the future.
So, at least now if you can make a film and Snag can first help create another window, you’ll go theatrical, you’ll go television, you’ll go DVD, you’ll go rental and then you can go streaming via Snag. That’s a good thing, having another window. But if you’re movie doesn’t find traditional distribution, we now have a way to get your movie out to a lot of people in a very frictionless way. Imagine if everyone who took a “Cause” on Facebook opened a movie theatre and picked the greatest films around the subject matter that was personal to them and showed that movie on their site. How powerful of a movement would that be?
EH: There has been such talk, just in the past few weeks, but it’s been building for the past few months, about the state of the industry. And there has been all this talk about there being this crisis in independent film right now. I think there are legitimate issues and challenges that are facing the industry in general, from my perspective. Despite the talk of that crisis, though, I really feel like there are so many filmmakers who are doing not only such exciting work right now, but who are thinking about alternative ways of distribution. So many filmmakers have felt so shut out of the process…
TL: You can sit and talk about and admire the problem, or you can say, well, what are the tools that I have at our disposal to try and fix it? And I think, once people see the big library we have in Snag, I think we’re going to get out to a very nice start. That people say this is a way that at least my films can get out to a very, very wide audience very quickly, and there’s a business model around it. And it’s being managed by people that know about the business, care about the artist, care about the quality of the films.
EH: I have one more question for you. I’m curious to know, as you have access to and the ability to engage and challenge people at various levels, what people on the tech side as well as people at the higher levels of industry are asking you about this. I know what kind of questions filmmakers have been asking about all of these new opportunities, but what has surprised you, what has intrigued you about the kinds of responses you’ve been getting as you’ve been meeting with folks?
TL: Well, if you’re in the industry, you have to be respectful of the industry itself. So that’s why you’ll see a lot of, studios, let’s say Paramount. Paramount loves movie theatres, they make a big hit movie and thousands of movie theatres work with them to show the film. And they spend a lot of money on advertising and they drive the people in and they’re part of a value chain. That’s one of the problems with the independent business, we’re not part of that system. We [at SnagFilms] want to augment that traditional system and say we want to have millions of movie theatres. We don’t want there to be high priests that say you get one week to show your film nice months after your film is completed, in eight cities.
So, that’s why this concept of filmanthropy got it’s higher calling. I’ve used Snag Films as the higher calling of filmanthropy because it’s an industry endeavor and it empowers individuals to become filmanthropists. It’s not an elitist concept anymore where you know it’s just a few people who can finance these films. Now you can be a filmanthropist, all you have to do is donate to Snag Films some of your pixels and you can help the cause.
EH: So we’ve come full circle in a lot of ways. I think that the issues and topics that I was personally hearing from filmmakers in ’93-94 when I started going to Sundance, surrounding communities, surrounding content, a lot of those are topics are even more relevant today…
TL: Definitely. What I saw with indieWIRE was that you really respect the industry and the filmmaker – you embrace it and you celebrate it. And you try to be part of a solution as opposed to admiring the problem. Well, that’s what we want to do, we’re going to be the aggregator and distributor of the films. I saw that indieWIRE had big reach, and had real finesse and credibility in that community. And by combining our two entities we could say okay, we’re going to be part of the solution.
EH: indieWIRE has been a terrific experiment, and we’ve been reacting and responding to the needs and the desires of not just the industry but really, filmmakers first and foremost. You know, we’ve been listening to what filmmakers have told us, both through the site and at the many festivals and panels I go to every year. What Snag Films wants to do is what filmmakers have been coming up to me asking for specifically.
And I think with indieWIRE we appreciate that you like what you see, we like what we see, we want it to be even better, we want it to be even more informed and even more connected to what’s going on. There’s so much change, there’s so many exciting things happening right now, that I think there’s a lot of great stories to be telling about the filmmakers themselves who are telling their own stories. So it’s really an interesting moment and an exciting moment. And I think especially, this next generation of filmmakers are really asking for new opportunities, but also creating their own, at the same time, This idea of independence — that is, true independence — it doesn’t rely on the industry, it doesn’t rely on anything other than this ingenuity and this creativity that I’m seeing all over the place right now.