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Leonisis, Case Back SnagFilms, Where Documentaries Meet Widgets; Startup Acquires IndieWIRE

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Anyone with a clue about Ted Leonsis’s activities these past few years won’t be too surprised to hear that his latest venture combines documentaries, widgets, AOL (NYSE: TWX) and passion — or that one of his fellow investors is AOL co-founder Steve Case. SnagFilms, which Leonsis hopes will spawn millions of virtual movie theaters streaming documentaries, is live tonight but officially launches in beta tomorrow with 250 films. The startup also has acquired IndieWIRE from GMD Studios; content from indieWIRE is prominently featured on Leonsis and CEO Rick Allen, formerly of National Geographic, Discovery and The Sporting News talked about the back story during a joint interview Wednesday. The two worked together on soccer doc Kicking It, then teamed up to take over operations for AOL’s True Stories channel. AOL will provide tech and ad sales infrastructure and has the right to use SnagFilms content for Moviefone and other channels. Former True Stories GM Stephanie Sharis is with SnagFilms.

Funding: Leonsis, the vice chairman emeritus of AOL, is the majority owner with investments from Case and VC Miles Gilburne. They aren’t talking about finances but the initial funding is well under $10 million. Among the revenue streams, display advertising, pre-rolls and an 8.5 percent bounty for DVD sales and the possibility of their own DVD distribution deals. No revenue sharing with distributors. (Ed. Note: To clarify, the company has revenue sharing with filmmakers but doesn’t share ad revenues with distributors.) Will they need more investment? Leonsis: “If we get a billion streams, we’re probably going to need another investor.”

Much more on “filmanthropy” and the IndieWIRE acquisition after the jump

Why documentaries?: Leonsis, whose first documentary was Nanking: “I really believe that in the future everyone is going to be a non-fiction storyteller because we’re putting cameras in everyone’s hands. It’s not going to be a niche but the major way people express themselves and tell stories.” But his emphasis here is on professionals. Filmmakers, production companies and partners include Morgan Spurlock, Frank Popper, National Geographic, PBS, United Nations, Sundance Preserve, IndiePix. Some titles are well known including Paper Clip and Super Size Me.

Widgetmania meets filmanthropy: Leonisis became chairman of widget startup Clearspring after he left AOL and while he was intensely involved in producing documentaries. The response to a Clearspring promo for horror film Cloverfield led to the notion that you could mesh what Leonsis calls “filmanthropy” with widgets by giving people a way to share documentaries. Add high-quality streaming through AOL’s video player and he thought you could open virtual movie theaters to air the documentaries while encouraging sharing and fundraising. SnagFilms will cover all of the streaming costs; the user grabs it, streams and supports a cause and an artist. Some artists designate a nonprofit; others are picked by Global Giving. Each documentary comes with pre-roll ads and the site carries advertising. Leonsis: “It’s a different concept of user-generated content… they can be filmanthropists by donating pixels it they’ll open a virtual movie theater.”

Acquiring IndieWIRE: Twelve-year-old IndieWIRE, with news, info and community, is a mainstay on the indie film scene. SnagFilms’ Allen says the site, which celebrated its anniversary Tuesday, will remain independent and will have more resources but it also will feed content to the new site. No financial terms disclosed. Eugene Hernandez, editor in chief and co-founder of indieWire, will also become editorial vice president of SnagFilms responsible for journalistic content on both sites. Brian Brooks and James Israel stay with IndieWIRE. iW’s blog post about the news.