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Premiering on the (very) small screen

Online services help documentaries like 'Haze' find audiences.

October 16, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

An early poster and the website for the devastatingly powerful documentary “Haze” proclaims, "Coming to a theater near you." Yet, as the makers of the film about college binge drinking learned earlier this year, theatrical distributors were hardly rushing to make that promise a reality, and it became obvious that "Haze" would never reach the multiplex.

With many documentaries, such news can mark the end of the road. For the makers of "Haze" -- and a new online movie service called -- the film's failure to attract a theatrical distributor might have sparked a new beginning, with "Haze" set for an unusual Internet premiere today.

The independent film world is suffering as many wild gyrations as the stock market. Hundreds of movies every year fail to attract distributors, and three of the biggest specialized film distributors -- Warner Independent, Picturehouse and Paramount Vantage -- have either closed or scaled way back in recent months. Red Envelope, a division of Netflix focused on distributing DVDs of tricky movies including documentaries, closed in July.

The healthier distributors, including Fox Searchlight and Miramax, focus narrowly on what they hope are art-house crossover hits. Scores of smaller movies lucky enough to make it into theaters often vanish within a few days, and the chances for even marginal success among nonfiction films are even worse.

With the path to theaters so constricted, a number of movie lovers are trying to create a virtual independent film circuit though cable and satellite television and the Internet.

Some of the film channels follow conventional video-on-demand models, including the Sundance Channel's recently announced Sundance Selects, which is launching Jan. 1, and IFC Entertainment's Festival Direct, both of which focus on narrative movies and documentaries that don't have theatrical distribution. One of the more intriguing start-ups is , a brand-new website dedicated to topical, often activist documentaries such as "Haze."

Unlike many movie services, Snag is free -- the catch being that the movies carry quick commercials every eight to 10 minutes, which can't be skipped, as with TiVo. But what sets SnagFilms apart is its movie-playing widget, which allows everyone from bloggers to hockey moms to install a SnagFilms player on their personal Web pages, creating a network of what SnagFilms estimates as more than 11,000 tiny theaters for its online library of 450 documentary films, a few of which previously were released theatrically.

"Traditional distribution has become sclerotic," says Rick Allen, who launched Snag this summer with AOL co-founder Steve Case, Case's wife, Jean, former senior AOL executive and "Nanking" documentary filmmaker Ted Leonsis, and venture capitalist Miles Gilburne.

"We want to take the content and go in concentric circles: take it to the most passionate people and have them pass it along to their friends," Allen says. "We're never going to replace television, but we may replace theatrical distribution because there's no money there. But our goal is not to replace traditional distribution but to supplement it."

The economics for documentarians is hardly lucrative.

Whereas Fox Searchlight spent $1.5 million to acquire "Young at Heart" more than a year ago and Paramount Vantage shelled out $1 million for "American Teen" at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Snag offers no advance payment. Filmmakers equally share with Snag the net advertising revenue their films generate, and while Snag promotes the sale of a movie's DVD, it also charges an 8.5% commission.

"We will be writing checks in the thousands of dollars," Allen predicts of future payments to Snag's filmmakers, "but not in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

All the same, Snag is bringing important movies to audiences that otherwise might never have known the films existed.

"Haze" was financed by Michael and Leslie Lanahan, the mother and stepfather of Gordie Bailey, an 18-year-old University of Colorado freshman who died of alcohol poisoning during a 2004 hazing incident at the university's Chi Psi fraternity house.

It's a terrifying "Scared Straight" tale aimed at parents, educators, legislators and young adults who underestimate the dangers of youthful alcohol abuse and binge drinking.

"The family's goal is information dissemination -- they want as many people to see it as possible," says Pete Schuermann, the film's director. "And they thought that the Internet as a free source was the most attractive way."

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