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Leonsis to Launch Next Feature, SnagFilms, Online

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis has successfully produced two documentary films in recent years. Now he is launching a Web company to distribute such films online for free, creating an outlet for moviemakers who have difficulty getting their films shown in cinemas.

The Web company, called SnagFilms, aims to generate revenue through advertising, which will be split evenly between Leonsis's company and the filmmakers.

"I believe it will be a big, important business," said Leonsis, who is majority owner of the firm. "It's an entrepreneurial endeavor. We will be investing tens of millions of dollars eventually. I think I can show a lot of movies and raise money for a lot of causes while we are building an audience and building value for this company."

Leonsis, vice chairman emeritus for AOL, is teaming up with former AOL chairman Steve Case and another former executive of the online giant, venture capitalist Miles Gilburne, to help with start-up costs.

Leonsis said SnagFilms offers established media companies a new, worldwide venue for documentary films that have been in their libraries. SnagFilms already has 250 films in its stable, including films from Public Broadcasting Service, National Geographic and Sundance Preserve. The company plans to add another 200 films to the Web site within a month.

To generate revenue, each documentary will include 90 seconds of advertising per hour, broken up into 15-second segments, Leonsis said. The advertising is being sold through AOL.

SnagFilms also allows viewers to support the causes promoted by these films by linking to participating nonprofits.

Leonsis hopes to recruit bloggers, Facebook users and other Web site operators to help distribute the films by allowing them to place a YouTube-like media player on their sites for streaming the content to others. The SnagFilms player was developed by Clearspring Technologies, a McLean company that counts Leonsis as a chief investor.

"It's a classic, double-bottom-line," said Rick Allen, SnagFilms chief executive.

SnagFilms player will differ from YouTube in that the films it offers will first be screened to ensure quality, Allen said.

Visitors can find a documentary they would like to view through the site's search window or by scanning a list of films. SnagFilm's staff will recommend features, and visitors can also browse through categories such as sports, politics and the environment.

"We want to make it as easy as possible to encourage you to explore," Allen said.

Visitors can review the films and comment online, just like they do when reviewing and rating books on Amazon.com and other sites.

Leonsis produced "Nanking," a documentary about Japan's brutal 1937 invasion of China's then-capital city, and "Kicking It," a film about a global soccer competition involving the homeless.

"There are only 500 theaters in the U.S. that will show these movies," Leonsis said. "I would like to open 5 million virtual movie theaters."

Aviva Kempner, a documentary film producer in the District who made "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," said she would be glad to have her film on the site, but she said it's unlikely she would go there to watch films.

"It's a fascinating notion," she said. "I just don't watch films on computers. The younger people operate on the small screen. Those of us who are older, tend not to. But for a young audience, I think he is on to something."

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