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Prescreen, We Hardly Knew You: What is the Future for Indie Movies Online?

Photo of Dana Harris By Dana Harris | Indiewire June 1, 2012 at 12:54PM

This week, eight-month-old online distributor Prescreen sent a "change of service" announcement to its subscribers. Translated: They're shutting down. The official statement is that the site successfully proved it "likely" that "the future of film discovery and distribution is digital." Furthermore:
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This week, eight-month-old online distributor Prescreen sent a "change of service" announcement to its subscribers. Translated: They're shutting down.

The official statement is that the site successfully proved it "likely" that "the future of film discovery and distribution is digital." Furthermore:

Prescreen featured 168 films, rented more than 10,000 movies, and saw more than 115,000 subscribers opt in to receive Prescreen movies. That said, we're perfectionists and we still don't believe we've seized the opportunity. For now, we're going back to the drawing board. When we come out on the other side, we'll be sure to let you know.

Startups change their minds all the time; they call it "pivoting," which is a tidy way of saying, "Well, that didn't work." And it was clear from the start that the Prescreen premise was flawed.

Founded by Groupon's former VP of business development, Shawn Bercuson, the original concept suggested there was potential in "grouponing" for indie movies. (It's a testament to the speed in which our world changes that the idea of "grouponing" now seems oddly quaint.) Prescreen sent an email every day offering the chance to watch an indie film, for a limited time, at $X (usually $4); outside that timespan (a week or so), the price doubled.

Two things immediately come to mind with this approach: Groupons live and die by their impressive, all-or-nothing discount. Here, there's no urgency; the price point is too low for that and if you really wanted to see the movie, you still could.

The other issue -- the one that no one really wants to face -- is that indie movies are, and likely always will be, a tougher sell for the masses. (Ask the marketing team at any indie distributor.) And when you're talking about the kinds of films that Prescreen handled -- many of which were high-quality titles with very low profiles -- it's an uphill battle of the first order.

And it's not like Prescreen didn't try. I thought their emails were terrific marketing tools. They summed up the movie with snappy and well-written summaries, they gave you a trailer and the interface was easy to use. But how many hundreds of thousands of paid views would it take for Prescreen to show a profit?

It's been clear for a while that whatever the answer might be, there wasn't enough. In recent months the Friday emails started to feature trailers for the weekend's movies rather than one of Prescreen's own. And Indiewire was subject to a flurry of pitches from their PR firm -- they did Facebook integration, they brought on founding Netflix exec/former Redbox president Mitch Lowe.

Most recently, they floated the idea of hosting "exclusive, pre-theatrical releases" for big-budget movies to "measure user engagement and relay data to local theatres based on content shares and conversations." (Online before theatrical? The studios would love that. And even if you presumed the data had relevance, what could theaters do with that information? Those films are booked months in advance.)

And the question remains: What is the future for indie movies online? It's one that obviously has some weight for Indiewire; not only does it impact almost every film we cover, but also our parent company, SnagFilms, distributes indie films online and across most digital platforms.

So, an informal poll: Did you use Prescreen? Know it existed? What's the future for watching indie movies online?
 

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit, News