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Prescreen: Where They Came From and Where They Are Going

February 25, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

Jordan Poast

Independent filmmakers are all too familiar with anxiety.  For most, the predominant fear lies in being unable to secure funds to produce their masterpieces.  Yet for those that are fortunate enough to have a finished product, the nightmare rests entirely in distribution. Failing to acquire it means the death of the film, which will wither on the vine before ever finding an audience. In only four short months of operation, the start-up website Prescreen has begun to neutralize these fears by providing a space for films in distribution limbo to gain exhibition and attract a fan base, with the help of real-time marketing tools. Says founder and CEO Shawn Bercuson, “Filmmakers are artists, not businessmen. We’re helping them access resources they didn’t know were available.”

Bercuson (30) knows a thing or two about nurturing a start-up from infancy to maturity, as the former Chicagoan was an executive and original employee of the internet phenomenon, Groupon. Pouring all of his efforts into his new project, Bercuson has developed Prescreen into an exciting new platform that operates as both an exhibition space for non-mainstream films and as an invaluable screening test for content owners.

Prescreen functions by highlighting and promoting carefully selected films to their subscribers via email. Of these mostly independent features, many have either failed to drum up distribution or were unsuccessful in their initial releases. The site posts a new film each day, which is active for two months before being removed, in which time users are encouraged to watch the trailer, view the movies at a cost of four to eight dollars, and then converse with other fans. This exhibition comes at no cost to the content owner, and all revenues generated are split 50/50 with Prescreen after the sixty-day run expires.

As Prescreen is still in the process of staking its claim on the distribution landscape, the money garnered from these exhibitions proves significantly less than if the film was shown in theaters. However, what separates Prescreen from alternative sites like Netflix is the bevy of tools provided to content owners for future marketing campaigns. Compiled from the profiles of users, the site offers a rare and coveted array of real-time analytics, ranging from trailer view rates to qualified demographic information about the people purchasing their works, including age, interests and location.

Prescreen Founder and CEO Shawn Bercuson

With such marketing transparency, content owners are able to specifically target the people that are most likely to respond to their films, chiefly through online advertising. These resources provide benefits over traditional Hollywood advertising methods, which Bercuson maintains are mired in antiquity.  Steadfastly resistant towards the new wave of online marketing, Hollywood continues to utilize outmoded screeners and exit polls to gauge interest from potential consumers, which, in addition to offering limited information, are wildly expensive. When promoting to a national market, these advertisers indiscriminately purchase traditional ad content without knowing what audience to cater to, instead marketing titles based on public reaction to movies with similar subject matter or actors. “Hollywood throws dollars out the window and hopes for the best.  It’s all about the past, and we’re looking at the present. We’re in golden age of technology, where getting the movie to the right people can be done if you know how.”

Though the titles in Prescreen’s current library are mostly at the end of their life-cycles, many filmmakers and distributors have begun to realize the value of the site as a low-risk, preemptive research tool for early-stage projects. Rather than bringing their films to the site as a last gasp effort to pique public interest, more are using the information gathered to devise ways of efficiently allocating their dollars into marketing and planning for the future. “We want you to start here, understand your market, and then if it makes sense to go to Amazon or iTunes, we’ll help you do it.”

Bercuson’s unique business model developed out of a fateful family vacation to Utah in January 2011. Originally in Park City for his father’s 60th birthday celebration, the young entrepreneur visited with some friends attending the famed Sundance Film Festival. Hobnobbing with artists and producers, Shawn became instantly engaged in discussions on the rise of Video-on-Demand and the failure of the modern Hollywood distribution cycle. Perhaps most impactful to Shawn was learning about the limited opportunities independent films have to thrive. “Of the 4,000 films submitted to Sundance, 120 are accepted and exhibited.  Only 30 are able to get distribution.”  With so many quality works saturating the market, Bercuson noticed a huge opportunity to provide previously unseen, high-quality titles directly to the viewer before distributors were able to recognize their mistake.  “I noticed that the Sideways’ and Pulp Fictions’ were still getting made, but not getting distribution.  We wanted to make a stage where filmmakers could reach their audiences more efficiently and cost-effectively.”

Discovering a golden opportunity to provide a new outlet for exhibition that, by utilizing modern technologies, could change the face of film advertising, Shawn immediately assembled an All-Star team of former Chicagoans, and in short order raised one million dollars in start-up capital. Soon after, Bercuson’s crew was hard at work incorporating techniques like incentive programs utilized by successful social media sites into Prescreen in order to drum up excitement and support from users.  Equally exhausting was the process of meeting with skeptical distributors and filmmakers in order to secure trust in their site.

Despite generally positive responses, Prescreen has come under fire from both critics and users.  Chiefly under scrutiny is the site’s relatively high pricing model, which rises over time. In response to these concerns, Bercuson notes that these films are coming to the viewer prior to theatrical exhibition, and their immediacy and relevance comes at a premium. In addition, Shawn maintains that this model is consistent with the subscription fee for Netflix based on the average of two movies viewed per month among users.

Even though these concerns have been raised, Bercuson sees a stronger motivating factor for his subscribers, time. “Spending eight dollars is less important that spending two hours of your free time.” With this, then, the onus is on the Prescreen team to become a trustworthy source for quality films, as each title will hold their seal of approval.  With many people skeptical of the reverse-Darwinian glorification of rejected films, the criterion for quality remains the most important element to Prescreeen’s success. “We want people to know that if we post the film, it will be worth their eight bucks.”

Despite such criticism, though, Prescreen is quickly becoming more visible in media outlets, most notably due to their strategy of becoming the central database of trailers for every film exhibited at Sundance.   While doing so has helped raise a legitimate association to the independent awards circuits, it has also aided immensely with customer acquisition. While initially performing below expectations, Shawn and his team have made changes in response to user comments (since going live four months ago, the site has undergone four iterations), and have begun seeing rapid growth that has exceeded their hopes. Of subscribers that joined in December and January, 50% have purchased at least one film, with 13% already purchasing again, which is a staggering conversion rate.  While the level of success varies dramatically from title to title, this growth is indicative of a clear interest from consumers.

With booming exposure and a user base that has surpassed 70,000 people, Prescreen is earning buzz as a promising new player in the digital revolution of film.  The unique platform offers an exclusive home theatrical experience for consumers, and a technological smorgasbord of diagnostic materials for content owners. And despite maintaining an “agnostic” content criterion (Prescreen is open to various media formats including stand-up comedy, concerts, and studio films), Bercuson insists that they will always be driven towards the needs of the small-time filmmaking David’s in the world of Hollywood Goliaths.  Continuing to tap into the reservoir of unappreciated movies that have fallen by the wayside, Prescreen is currently moving into a new phase next month, which will provide a more social experience for discovery, a move that is intended to raise the site from startup to powerhouse.

 

If you would like to submit a film for consideration to Prescreen, go to Prescreen.com/submit.  There you can upload your trailer and post any accolades your film has achieved.  If interested, the Prescreen team will contact you for further details.

 

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