Last week, there was a big splash in the small pool that is the Internet documentary film community. A new site called Snagfilms was launched by former AOL vice chairman Ted Leonsis, ex-AOL chief Steve Case and venture capitalist Miles Gilburne. Heavy hitters, indeed. The site allows people like you and me to watch docs online, and to use widget technology to link other folks to docs on our myspace pages and the like. And here’s the kicker: the docs are free. Snagfilms currently has 250 documentaries on the site (with another 150 soon to be added), including Super Size Me, Dig! and Kicking It, with plans to expand to much, much more.

Snag FilmsI spoke with Snagfilms CEO Rick Allen (previously of the National Geographic Society and Discovery Communications), who walked me through the site.”What’s making this possible are two things: One, a group of investors who care about independent films and in social change, and who are willing to underwrite a big, professional expensive effort,” he said. “And, two: Filmmakers who are trying to figure out the best way to use the opportunities to use digital platforms to reach an audience and to monetize their content.” (In addition to watching the film online, viewers are given the opportunity to buy the dvd.)

The whole venture might be lost amongst the many recent websites trying to get a foothold in the indie online film world (filmcatcher comes to mind), but these guys went a large step further when they also bought out “It’s like doubling down,” Allen says. “At a time when a lot of folks are saying the sky is falling in the film world, some very smart, deep pocketed folks like Ted are saying we believe in this sector.”

I couldn’t help noting a couple of ironies while talking with Allen. First, I noticed that there was a McDonald’s ad on the same page that Supersize Me could be downloaded. And then there’s the strange coincidence that Albert Maysles just recently announced the creation of his own theater in Harlem that is totally dedicated to documentaries. Talk about old world and new world ventures. While Maysles’ theater seems quaint and admirable, it’s clearly in Snagfilms that doc filmmakers could find hope for a better future. I wish them the best. I, for one, plan on watching Kicking It this weekend.

How big can Snagfilms get? I asked Allen for some projections. “You think I’m going to put a target on my chest?” He said, laughing. “I don’t know. It’s a brave new world. And it’s going to take a bunch of money and a whole lot of effort.”

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen