Back in 2007, veteran media executive and entrepreneur Rick Allen teamed up with his friend, Ted Leonsis, tech pioneer, philanthropist and film producer, to produce a documentary called Kicking It, which follows six soccer players on their journey to compete in the 2006 Homeless World Cup in South Africa. While the film was successful – it screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and was later acquired by ESPN – Leonsis came out of the experience with a bigger idea: What if they could create a technology platform to help promote and distribute many of the other documentaries like theirs that few if anyone ever hear about?

In July 2008, that idea became reality when SnagFilms, a digital distribution platform for films, was born.

Originally spun out of a former AOL venture called True Stories, SnagFilms launched with a library of some 450 non-fiction titles. The company, which also includes the journalistic outlet Indiewire, has since flourished and now offers more than 5,000 titles spanning multiple film categories. All films can be viewed at SnagFilms.com, via the SnagFilms app on nearly all mobile and connected devices, and through a global digital network of more than 110,000 affiliated sites and webpages.

I caught up with SnagFilms co-founder and CEO Rick Allen to ask him about how his company continues to evolve as the world of online media continues to change along with it.

What was the inspiration for you and Mr. Leonsis to start SnagFilms?



SnagFilms

Our objective was simple. We knew there was high-quality, really engaging content, especially non-fiction content, made every year that wasn’t reaching an audience. We knew firsthand because we had taken a film to Sundance. Our film was successful relative to other independent films. But consider that Sundance alone receives about 12,000 submissions every year. The year we went, they had 9,000 submissions and accepted 118 films, 38 of which were documentaries. Ours was one of seven documentaries among those that got any kind of distribution. Ted asked, what happened to all those other films? That’s where the idea of SnagFilms originated.

So the idea was to build a platform for people to access movies they wouldn’t otherwise see?

Right. We said, why not use the distribution capabilities that were opening up in the web world and see if we could connect these great films with a broader audience. But it goes beyond watching the movie. We also wanted to combine online resources with the communication power of film to catalyze an audience toward creating social change. We wanted to give people the chance to do something about the issue they were watching, whether that was finding ways to volunteer their time, contribute to a charity or just spread the word by sharing the movie. It was what Ted called “filmanthropy.”

That’s really interesting. In the years since, you have also greatly expanded the kinds of films available, right?

Yes, in the beginning we started with documentaries but now we have more than 5,000 titles, including fictional themes, and varying lengths, both long- and short-form. All of them are available for free on an ad-supported basis. Some of our bigger titles have gone out transactionally, on a pay model, and we’ve sold some to TV including our most recent film, Lost for Lifewhich has aired on LMN and is on iTunes. We’ve taken others into the theaters. Selections from our library are also available on every pay platform out there, including iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, and Comcast, who is also one of our shareholders.

It sounds like you’ve also embraced a lot of the changes that mobile technology has brought about where we watch content as well, correct?

In addition to our website, we have created applications across every device, including smartphones, tablets, Roku, Xbox and connected TVs of all kinds. That’s helped us evolve into a platform as well as a content company. With that new capacity, we have launched four new verticals in the past 90 days.

Could you expand on that?

We have launched four new channels that are now available on Roku and IOS devices, will be rolled out on Chromecast and Android soon, and are coming to the connected TV world on the other major devices. In addition to the core SnagFilms app, we have SnagExtreme, which caters to young men. VayaFilm, features our Spanish-language content. Kiddo offers children’s movies and Funny for Free is a comedy channel for adults. Funny for Free is the device-world’s home for our new brand with original content that we’ve commissioned, called Thundershorts: seven original short-form series starring notable comics, including series that are up for several awards. We are working with an extraordinary group of comedians, and we’re quite proud of that.



SnagFilms

So you’ve really begun to expand outside of your documentary roots.

We’ve become a launch pad where great creative talent can showcase their work. We want to give them a home and help in making great content and distributing it. We’re responding to changes in the business. We’re not known for having short-form series or comedy, even though we’ve always had a strong stable of long-form funny films. We wanted to launch Thundershorts to see if we could expand our offerings. We have been blown away by what our team put together in a short period of time.

How else has the organization grown or changed recently?

When we started out, we had five employees on the SnagFilms side and three with Indiewire, which we bought in August 2008. Now, we have 30 full time people. We also work with a number of freelancers on the Indiewire side. But we’ve tried to stay small and lean as a way to be responsive to the business and be good stewards for our investors.

Could you explain how your team goes about deciding which films get picked up by SnagFilms?

We’re interested in getting great stuff out there. We have a small but very good acquisitions team. They hand select every one of our films. They screen it, and make a determination if we’re the right partners for that film. If we don’t think a film is a good fit, we’ll tell the filmmaker. We feel that it’s important to try and give folks whatever guidance we can about how the business works and how it’s changing. For the movies we select, we offer a revenue sharing model.

There’s no doubt that as the barriers to making online content get lower and lower, there’s more and more content out there. Do you see your role as helping screen or curate that content for your viewers?

We do think a curated service is important. There is an enormous flood of content out there. We spend a lot of time trying to think through the best discovery process for our viewers to find films they will enjoy. We feel that we are providing a real service by doing that. If we weren’t selective, I’m not sure what kind of contribution we would be making. And Indiewire has become the premier home for the world’s best professional film critics, a service we call Criticwire.

You’ve had a long and illustrious media career working for Discovery, National Geographic and The Sporting News among others. What has the experience of running a business like SnagFilms been like for you personally?

I have done a lot of business startups in my career, but all of them have been in the context of a much bigger company. I have never run something this small and never done a pure-play startup before. So I have been learning like crazy from day one. You hope to apply something from your prior professional stops, but you also want to avoid making assumptions that things will go down the way they have in the past. I have a great deal to learn from everyone in our company, especially some of our younger colleagues. They are frequently closer to the technology we are using and consumption patterns we are trying to satisfy. We are teaching each other and making the company stronger even in a tough competitive environment.

You have raised several rounds of capital from an all-star cast of investors. Has that put pressure on you to grow as well?

We have had very patient investors. They never saw this as the fastest way to make money. We call ourselves a double bottom line company. We owe our shareholders and the folks working in this business a financial success that also accomplishes our broader goals – which is having an impact on the world by sharing stories. Just look at the SnagFilms’ home page and you’ll see so many films that have made a difference by putting the spotlight on an important issue that we need to think about and act on. For example, look at Sewing Hope, which is about an extraordinary woman, Sister Rosemary, who is accomplishing so much by standing up to evil, often alone, and still accomplishing so much. Along with watching that movie you can also find different ways to engage, like learning more about Sister Rosemary’s work with the young women who were victims of Joseph Kony’s brutality in Uganda, donating to her charity and school, or buying the book about her.

It sounds like your work at SnagFilms has had a very personal impact on you.

I frequently get emails or Facebook messages from folks that range from close friends to distant connections, to complete strangers, who tell me that after watching one of our movies, they were moved to get involved in an issue and make a difference. That means we are doing what Ted and I set out to do. That makes me real happy.