Ex-Groupon Exec Puts Indie Movies Online at Startup Prescreen

When Shawn Bercuson and his family went to Park City, UT, exactly one year ago, they may have been the only people not in town to attend the famous Sundance Film Festival, which is held there every January. “I do enjoy movies, but my family and I go skiing every year during Sundance,” he says. “If you go then, the mountains are empty. It’s unbelievable. And then at night, there are world-class concerts and movies. It’s a ton of fun.”

Still, it wasn’t to be a typical January for Bercuson. The former Chicagoan, who was one of the original employees at Groupon and a former principal with venture firm Lightbank, had just moved to San Francisco. He was thinking about his next career move. His friends knew that, and they were peppering him with ideas.

“I had some friends in the [film] industry who know me as their go-to tech entrepreneur, and everybody was talking about distribution and how DVD revenues are declining,” Bercuson recounts. “I started talking to producers and filmmakers and going to meetings my friends had set up. And it was amazing to me, number one, that this business was so antiquated, and number two, that it was such a huge opportunity. They really needed help.”

By “this business,” Bercuson means independent films—those where more than half the financing comes from sources outside the Hollywood studio system. For indie filmmakers, it’s a fiercely competitive world. Of the 4,000 films submitted to the Sundance festival in 2011, only 200 were accepted, and only 50 of those were acquired for theatrical distribution. “The good movies were getting financed,” says Bercuson. “The problem was distribution. And the more I looked into it, the more I realized how similar the problem was to Groupon.”

In a way, Bercuson suggests, indie movies are like coupons for local deals. There are a lot of coupons out there, but before Groupon they were harder to find, remember, share, and use. Similarly, “There were plenty of repositories for movies, like Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix, but they were still having a hard time finding an audience. The question is, how do you connect content to an audience that’s relevant when [the filmmakers] don’t have the money to market these titles?”

At Prescreen, the San Francisco startup Bercuson founded shortly after his Park City trip, the answer also looks a lot like Groupon’s. The company picks one independent movie per day to feature on its website and in its e-mail newsletter. People who rent a streaming version of the movie on that first day get 50 percent off the rental price ($4, as opposed to the usual $8).

As with Groupon, there’s a social and reputation-based element: if you’re among the first 5 percent of people to rent a movie, or if you can get at least three friends to rent on your recommendation, your next rental is free. And just like Groupon’s coupons, Prescreen’s offers are time-bound: once users start playing the movie, they have 48 hours to finish viewing, and most movies get booted off the site after 60 days to make room for new additions.

The only catch is that you have to watch Prescreen’s movies on your computer. The service doesn’t yet work with iPads, set-top boxes, or Internet-connected TVs. (That said, it’s not too hard to play streaming video from a laptop on a big-screen TV, if you have the right connectors. See my 2009 column Cutting the Cable: It’s Easier Than You Think.)

To tap into the excitement around this year’s Sundance Festival, which runs from January 19-29, Prescreen has gathered all of the publicly available trailers for Sundance-anointed films—so far that includes 86 of this year’s 112 features. You can’t stream the full version of these movies, but you might be able to after the festival. The whole point of Prescreen—and the reason Bercuson himself will be in Park City again this year—is to offer an outlet to the majority of filmmakers who, come January 30, won’t have distribution deals.

Also starting this week, Prescreen will spend three weeks promoting films from the previous three Sundance festivals that “didn’t get the love they deserved,” according to Bercuson. These hidden gems might even have turned up on Netflix or iTunes, but haven’t yet found their niche audiences. “We are going to show that there is a lot of great content out there that doesn’t have mass-market appeal but does appeal to me or you,” he says.

Bercuson launched Prescreen on September 14 with $1 million in Series A funding from a group of individual investors including former Facebooker Chamath Palihapitiya, CMEA Capital partner Saad Khan, Kauna Ventures chairman Ed Cluss, Rapleaf founder Auren Hoffman, and … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Ex-Groupon Exec Puts Indie Movies Online at Startup Prescreen”

  1. Thanks for covering Prescreen Wade. I like the data overlay you explained about how the filmmakers can get a quick directional read about their likely audience. I was curious about how Shawn built the email list and if he knows yet how it matches to the general film consuming audience. Ie. is the Prescreen list and behavior likely predictive of mainstream audiences? Does it even need to be?

  2. Shawn says:

    Wade – Thanks again! Great article and very well written. Much appreciated.

    Jules – Hi! Great to see a familiar name on here :) Growth has been a combination of organic traffic from great articles like this one, filmmakers driving traffic to Prescreen (some of which use our “insider access” tool we built to help filmmakers leverage their existing audiences), and CPC. As you can imagine, organic traffic has been the most powerful and we see impressive sharing numbers from this cohort.

    Since Prescreen is only 3 months old, we’re assuming we are getting early technology adopters and people who LOVE movies. This may not be predictive of the general mainstream audience yet, but as a startup, we’re thrilled to find Prescreen evangelists and not just consumers who are less likely to share (though we love both equally). As we continue to grow and collect this data, we’re confident that shining some light on the audience for filmmakers who currently are not building an audience (much less analyzing them) will help them become more efficient (therefore more effective) in their efforts to market their film. Our team is super excited because each day we grow and add more data points, Prescreen becomes a smarter business and a more reliable source for predicting mainstream audiences.

    Founder & CEO