INTERVIEW by ALEX BAUMGARDNER | BR!NK PHOTOGRAPHY by ZACK DeZON
Shawn Bercuson spent a good portion of his professional career helping develop and lift companies like Groupon off the ground. But it was on a ski trip with his father to Park City, Utah, during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival — when the mountains are nearly empty — that he ended up meeting with some people in the movie business who, at the time, were running in circles trying to find a way to monetize the digital distribution of films. This is when Prescreen was born, an online streaming platform aiming to redefine how films are distributed and improve the consumer experience by actually taking the time to learn what people want to watch.
By the time you began developing Prescreen, streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu were already well-established. What angle did you see into the online movie distribution market?
When we started Groupon, there was Coupons.com, Restaurant.com, CouponCabin, you name it. Groupon didn’t invent the coupon, but presented coupons in such a way that was easy to consume and even easier to share. What we did was create conversations around coupons every day. So for the consumer, there are plenty of places you can go online and get coupons. It’s a pull experience rather than a push experience. And it’s the same thing with movies. There’s Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes. And they kind of have this nuclear arms race with how many movies they can get or how many pieces of content they can gather. Well, for the consumer, it’s very difficult to actually sift through all that stuff and find something that’s relevant to you. They understand there’s a problem; they just don’t know how to fix it. Where I realized these companies like Netflix were lacking was in two things: number one, promotion, and number two, analytics. So Prescreen is a marketing and promotion site for content, but really it’s a real-time analytics platform. So we can collect all this data and help content owners put movies in front of the right people.
Prescreen sort of taps into that “word of mouth” aesthetic that has made countless cult hits. Is it a goal to create a measurable market for that?
Yeah, but we’re actually not going after cult films. There are a lot of really good films with big name stars that don’t find a home. They come and go and never find a home. We have those sort of underground films there because we want to appeal to a mass audience. But we’re pretty agnostic toward what content is. We consider what we do not just independent film, or film. To us, it’s long-form content. So as YouTube is for short-form content, Hulu is for medium-form content, we’re long-form, meaning it could be a stand-up comedy show, it could be a concert, it could be a film. Really, the consumer doesn’t care. What the consumer cares about is that it is going to take an hour and a half of their night. It’s not just niche stuff. We’re casting a wide net.
Prescreen curates a wide variety of long-form content on an easy-to-use, interactive platform
We’re actually doing the same thing Spotify does for music on Facebook, but for movies. So on Prescreen, the moment you watch a trailer it automatically posts on your newsfeed. In September, Facebook basically spelled out what they were trying to do, and that’s become an entertainment platform. And they said there are three global verbs they’re giving preferred treatment: Watch, Read, and Listen. You’ve probably seen Listen with Spotify, and Read with Yahoo! Reader or the Washington Post Social Reader that all pop up in your newsfeed. But you probably haven’t seen Watch. And no one has really gone after that. We’re actually one of Facebook’s first partners to do Watch.
How do you land your content?
We work with filmmakers, distributors, and producers, very early on in the life cycle. Right now, when they finish a movie they have to go to film festivals, they have financers and sales agents. We’re trying to make that process a lot more efficient. Being able to have that data so they can go to a studio and say, “Look, for every dollar you put in, you’ll get three back.” That’s sort of our secret sauce.
Can you talk about the experience of starting something like this from the ground up? What was the most difficult thing about putting this all together?
Coming up with the idea is the easy part. But all of the unforeseen things you think you have nailed aren’t. Once you get beyond that initial phase, there are a whole bunch of external factors, anything from the economy putting pressure on your financing, to somebody on your team getting sick. And all of a sudden, your small team is distracted, and that can really hurt. For Prescreen, we had this unbelievable designer initially. And about three months in he gets engaged. But like three days later, his fiancée, who was in medical school, ended up getting transferred to Denver. So we’re three months in and already without our designer. Luckily, we were able to find a great replacement, but for about a month there we were really scrambling. We got lucky, but that’s tough.
What sort of response has Prescreen gotten so far?
So far, so good. We haven’t really done much marketing, except for the social stuff. All of our growth has essentially been organic. We’ve gone from about 10,000 subscribers to about close to 80,000 subscribers within a few months. But more importantly, we’re seeing our daily and monthly actives continuing to increase on a daily basis. We’re getting a bunch of signups every day. It’s really, really encouraging. And people who are discovering these movies are now watching them seriously. Of the people we consider active, we’ve had 25 percent of them already buy a movie, and 15 percent of them already buy again. We’ve only been around a short time, but we’re starting to see all the right behaviors.
This sort of platform is increasingly jumping out of web browsers and onto mobile and television devices. Is that in the future for Prescreen?
We’re working on that right now. It’s extremely important for us to be ubiquitous in terms of platforms. Wherever you want to watch a movie, that’s where we want to be. But we’re already on Google TV, which is already a browser-enabled device. And we actually think the world is going in that direction. Netflix, right now, is on like 170 platforms or something — iPads, Xbox 360, et cetera. But we think there’s going to be a consolidation of that in the future. And the way that’ll happen is that it’s all going to be browser-based. So I go online and decide I want to watch something, then I add it to my queue and it’s on my TV when I get home. So with GoogleTV, for example, you can do that.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
The easiest thing to do is to sign on and give us feedback. We’re still in growth mode and practice what we preach. We’re continually changing and always love great constructive feedback.