Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Dana Harris
June 1, 2012 12:54 PM
5 Comments
  • |

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

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?
 

You might also like:

5 Comments

  • Rick Bolton | June 4, 2012 8:39 PMReply

    I would turn the "informal poll" back on Indiewire, as this publication has almost completely ignored digital film retailing, and has yet to initiate (let alone sustain) a meaningful conversation about this topic. As this article suggests, Prescreen had its heart in an interesting place, but didn't really have a business model. To suggest that this failure says anything at all about the future of indie movies online (aside from the fact that digital film retailing, like every other business in the world, has to make money) indicates just how little Indiewire actually knows about this business. If Indiewire lessened its emphasis on indie "box office" and spent more time looking at the way indie films find and build audiences across multiple channels, we readers would be much better served.

  • TC Kirkham | June 2, 2012 7:23 AMReply

    Prescreen was a great idea, but executed poorly. Despite what most people believe, in my personal experience in discussing it with dozens of people, most people (including myself, and I review films) HATE watching films on a tiny computer screen. NONE of the online services will ever flourish until they can find a way to get on a big screen TV. Most are getting to that point now, via SmartTV and such, but I see very few of these potentially huge services actually servicing the regular viewing market. Why wasn't Prescreen available via Playstation and X-Box? Roku? Boxee?

    Even Indiewire's own SnagFilms is in danger of losing out. Why? Because the company holds all the new stuff for the website. When was the last time SnagFilms updated the offerings on Roku? It's been almost a year since I joined the Roku Revolution, and the same damn films are listed - it hasn't updated even once, and I check it a couple times a week. I get an email every day from Snag about new films, NONE of which have shown up anywhere but the website so far as I can tell. And it's that kind of marketing ignorance which puts the online film companies in a bind. They MUST find ways to please ALL their potential audiences, not just the ones online or on a smartphone. I don't want to hook up my phone or pc to my tv just to watch a movie - and very few companies seem to get that. RIP Prescreen - a great idea gone way before its time...

  • Christopher Campbell | June 1, 2012 7:20 PMReply

    I don't think I'd ever heard of Prescreen before this piece, which could have been the problem. But I'd love to know what happened to FlickMe, especially since they owe me money.

  • J.E. Vizzusi | June 1, 2012 3:49 PMReply

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

    No
    No
    Its way too difficult of a on-line market to gauge in a few sentences here but I'll try. The way I see it, on-line is still trendy and most importantly never can duplicate a Theatrical setting such as your favorite Art House. I still desire an audience when I screen Films! Maybe a better approach would be a lets call it "Snagfilms" first look, where select Distributors get a chance to preview for a price. That way at least, Indies may have a better fighting chance than selling their rights cheaply for a VOD release. And the Indie side of Studios will only buy in if you match their P&A. The market at least is flexible enough to pre-screen enough Films that still may have a chance of a limited Theatrical Release. The real future may be Indies becoming completely independent of any Distribution outlet and creating some kind of a new on-line Network run by the Producers of the own Films! Sounds expensive but I believe to be most certainly feasible in the everchanging world of Digital delivery.

  • Linda Nelson | June 1, 2012 3:20 PMReply

    I never understood why Prescreen would take down movies. When films don't have the advantage of a theatrical release, they need time to breathe and build an audience. Word-of-mouth is much slower than being blasted by billboard and tv advertising. Our film DELIVERED was up and fared modestly, but two months is not enough time for the Key Art to get burned into people's brain. Our company also distributes films though our Indie Rights label and we are seeing audiences grow slowly over the course of a year or more. What works for platforms like iTunes, Amazon and now Google Play is the fact that they provide an "endless shelf". Unlike broadcast/cable VOD that might only be for three months, or a limited window in a retail store, these platforms allow indie filmmakers to slowly build an audience for their films and ultimately for their entire body of work.