Walt Mossberg

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SnagFilms Finds Virtual Theaters for Documentaries

Thousands of feature-length documentary films are produced every year, but almost nobody gets a chance to see them. A few dozen are shown to small audiences at major film festivals, and a handful make it into theaters. For every blockbuster like “An Inconvenient Truth,” there are hundreds of documentaries that never find an audience.

Starting Thursday, however, there will be a new online service that aims to change all that. The service, called SnagFilms, allows anyone with a blog, a Web site, or even a page on a social-networking site, to open a virtual movie theater and show these documentaries, free. The virtual theater is a small widget that contains the film, and that can be embedded easily and quickly in a wide variety of popular social-networking services and blog platforms. No technical knowledge is needed.

Once a site or page owner “snags” a film in this way, visitors to the site can view it in a larger window that pops out from the widget. This window plays the film, displays some ads and provides links to charities or organizations related to the topic of the movie. The films can even be played in full-screen mode. Many also include links for buying a DVD of the film. All that’s missing is the popcorn.

These aren’t homemade, three-minute YouTube (GOOG) clips. Nearly all are feature-length, professionally produced documentaries, from both small independent filmmakers and well-known sources such as PBS and National Geographic.

The owner of the site or blog gets no direct revenue from posting the films. He or she is, in effect, donating space to support the film or the cause it highlights, a decision SnagFilms calls “filmanthropy.” But the filmmaker and SnagFilms do make money — splitting advertising revenue equally. And the charity or organization can make money, too, if viewers opt to donate. The filmmaker also can make money from DVD sales, paying SnagFilms an 8.5% commission.

I have been testing a prerelease version of the SnagFilms service and have posted SnagFilms widgets with no problems to Facebook, MySpace (News Corp), iGoogle, Netvibes, Blogger, Windows Live Spaces (MSFT) and Vox. Many more Web sites can house these widgets, including the vast number of blogs built on the popular WordPress and TypePad platforms.

Here’s how it works. You just go to the SnagFilms Web site at www.snagfilms.com, select one or more of the 250 or so films available at launch and click the snag button. A menu pops up that lists numerous popular networking services and platforms. Clicking one will automatically post the SnagFilms widget of your choice on your page or site at one of these services. You can also simply view the films at the SnagFilms site.

Each widget includes an “info” button that takes you to a page on the SnagFilms site giving the details and background on the film. You can also leave comments here, rate the film, order the DVD and see recommendations for related films.

The system is viral, so you don’t have to start at the SnagFilms site. A Web surfer who sees a SnagFilms movie anywhere on the Web can spread it around just by clicking the snag button on every widget. The snag button allows the viewer to either host the film or to email a link to the film that will bring friends to the SnagFilms site to view or snag it.

SnagFilms is the brainchild of Ted Leonsis, a former top executive at America Online (TWS), who in recent years has become a documentary-film producer. He became frustrated with the distribution bottleneck for such films and arranged to take over AOL’s documentary site, TrueStories, and turn it into SnagFilms. He also is chairman of the board of a company, Clearspring, which created the film widgets.

At launch, the SnagFilms catalog includes well-known documentaries like “Super Size Me,” but also lesser-known films on a wide variety of topics, including college football, AIDS in Africa, politics, profiles of average people and tales of the New York Fire Department. One of my favorites was “Paper Clips,” the story of how a school in Tennessee learned about the Holocaust.

Filmmakers can submit movies to the site by sending an email to: submissions@snagfilms.com. SnagFilms says it doesn’t censor or edit the films, but won’t accept pornography or films deemed to encourage hate. It does have a selection process, so not all films submitted will make it onto the site. The company hopes to add more films soon.

I had only two gripes about SnagFilms. First, the films should be able to play inside the widget itself, with an option inside to play at larger sizes. Having to open a separate browser window is a pain. The company says it’s working on this.

Second, the initial catalog is light on documentaries from a conservative or probusiness perspective. But the company says it is “actively seeking to offer differing viewpoints” and will soon add “a number of films that are quite conservative in philosophy.”

SnagFilms is a great idea for getting documentary films in front of more people. It’s another example of how the Web is changing media distribution for the better.