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Prescreen: The Social Movie Finder That Wants To Shake Up Online Video

Did you know just 1 percent of the thousands of films at the Sundance Festival get distribution deals? That’s something Prescreen, a new social movie discovery and viewing platform, is trying to change with a quirky model.

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Every day just became your own personal film festival. Launching today, Prescreen is calling itself a “social movie discovery platform” that’s designed to “give filmmakers and distributors an alternative to traditional advertising and distribution channels.” That is, it’s a web interface wrapped in a social network to a curated catalog of films that may otherwise have had difficulty finding a distribution deal.

The system is easy: You sign up, supply a small amount of info about yourself and then you’re into the main lobby of what’s effectively a virtual cinema venue where a host of new films can be watched. You can watch trailers for each movie currently on offer, and then rent ones you like to stream on demand similarly to many other online movie streaming services (once you pay, there’s a time within which to watch the movie, 48 hours, in the window that the movie’s available on the site–60 days). There’s also a “featured” movie, which is the main highlight in a daily email–designed to tempt you to watch some of the better movies in the company’s stable.

So far it sounds familiar, but the clever part is the social interface: By buying movies and then sharing them with friends via social networks like Facebook and Twitter, users earn discounts and rewards. There’s also an element of gamification because by being an early viewer to a new movie (your viewer count is shown to you when you rent) you earn TrendSpot points, which reflect a count of the number of people you’d need to share info about the movie with in order for you to view another movie for free. The prices are high to start with, but then drop as the movie spends more time in Prescreen’s archive–similar to movie theaters charging more for new features, and less for an older Saturday matinee showing.

The attraction to cinema buffs is evident, and the attraction to content owners is more interesting: As well as getting a cut of the takings, each filmmaker gets a “Prescreen Performance Report” which summarizes deep and extensive statistics about the users who are buying the movie, how many of them, what social and economic categories they fall into and so on. It’s anonymized so no individual users info will ever be shared. This, Prescreen notes in its press release, forms an “intuitive marketing report” that “includes all of the relevant info from the purchasers” so that content owners can “use the detailed information to make informed decisions about continued distribution and marketing efforts”–with a precision in understanding the audience that wouldn’t be possible using traditional survey methods in regular theaters.

Founder CEO Shawn Bercuson spoke to Fast Company to explain where the idea came from: He has a background in venture capital, and was attending the Sundance festival a few years ago, but noted that all of the industry attendees like filmmakers, producers, and distributors he spoke with were “talking about the fall of DVD and the rise of VoD” (video on demand) and this prompted him to look at how the industry could be innovated. His first thought was to look at a system like Kickstarter.

But he was driven by his urge to be “disruptive” and was drawn to the distribution system, after noting that of the 4,000-odd movies submitted to Sundance that year only less than 1% were successful in securing a distribution to theaters. According to Bercuson there was “no one in distribution, it was such an antiquated industry and people were still doing the same stuff they were doing 20 years ago” despite the fact that “we have these new exciting tools and technology at our disposal. Nobody was using them.” Bercuson notes that while “Netflix and iTunes and Amazon are great, and they have a purpose–but there was nobody playing at the early stage of the game” and these new VoD systems were effectively acting as digital movie theaters, rather than working earlier in the movie-creation system.  

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Bercuson produced Prescreen to access this market, looking at the 4,000 movies from Sundance and all the other movies that are produced–“sometimes with big name stars”–that never get a launch because “distribution companies didn’t want to take a risk on them” or they did get a deal but there wasn’t enough money to promote them into good public sight. To this end, Prescreen also offers the opportunity for filmmakers to submit films directly to them for consideration in their service.

The idea was to “create signal out of noise” and thus take cues from companies like Woot and Groupon that promote many good offers and services in a way that makes them “easy to consume and really even easier to share.” That’s why Prescreen’s team “scours through the 10,000-plus movies produced each year” and curates them into its service, avoiding the trap of simply crowd-reviewing movies because it’s not as deep a form of social integration as service like Twitter.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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