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Video-on-demand website Prescreen hopes to be a film launch pad

Prescreen offers users a curated selection of independent films for $2 to $8 each and gives filmmakers as much as 70% of each rental and valuable marketing data.

May 22, 2012|By Oliver Gettell
  • Indie filmmakers Katie Hall, left, and J.P. Riley put their micro-budget feature “Act Naturally,” about two estranged stepsisters who inherit a nudist resort, on Prescreen on April 30. It was rented 350 times in the first week and a half.
Indie filmmakers Katie Hall, left, and J.P. Riley put their micro-budget… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

Video-on-demand services usually come into play toward the end of a film's life span — either to follow a theatrical run or to take a movie straight to video.

For the website Prescreen, however, VOD is the launching pad.

Prescreen, which debuted in September, offers users a curated selection of independent films, most available for 60 days and many exclusive to the site. A single film is spotlighted in a daily email, and most rentals cost $2 to $8 for a 48-hour viewing window. Prescreen also hooks into users' Facebook accounts, enabling sharing and discovery of films among friends and like-minded users.

Lee Wilson, a co-founder and vice president of business development at Prescreen, said the site can help its roughly 75,000 users find interesting films in an increasingly crowded marketplace — "to create signal out of all that noise," he said.

Filmmakers and distributors working with Prescreen get a cut of the rental price — 50% for exclusive films, which are priced at a premium, and 70% for other films. But what sets the service apart is its focus on tapping undiscovered products and markets.

"There are a lot of films, especially on the film festival circuit, that are really good and for whatever reason never get picked up," Wilson said. "We're trying to help these smaller films prove that there is a market."

Wilson and most of his colleagues at the San Francisco company have backgrounds in online technology and marketing, including co-founder and Chief Executive Shawn Bercuson, a former Groupon Inc. executive. They're attempting to bring a data-driven approach to film marketing and distribution.

Prescreen offers content providers detailed analytics and demographic data about viewers of a particular film, gathered from users' Facebook accounts, which can include age, location, gender and interests. Armed with such data, content providers can tailor their marketing efforts to specific audiences.

"If you know that the market for this film is 23- to 30-year-old females that live on the coasts," Wilson said, "now you know not to market the film in Middle America."

Prescreen helped find a broader audience for "The Purity Myth," a documentary based on the bestselling book by Jessica Valenti.

The film was produced by the Media Education Foundation, a nonprofit that distributes documentaries to colleges and high schools. Kendra Hodgson, the foundation's director of marketing and distribution, said the film drew a lot of outside interest, primarily through social media.

"There were a lot of people who wanted to see the film who weren't in our traditional demographic," Hodgson said.

Hodgson saw Prescreen as a good way to reach those potential viewers.

Prescreen was immediately receptive. Hodgson said "The Purity Myth" has been rented more than 1,500 times on the site. The film's Prescreen page has had more than 37,000 views, and the film itself is featured on Prescreen's Breakout Movies section.

Prescreen has also proved useful for indie filmmakers J.P. Riley and Katie Hall, who co-wrote the micro-budget feature "Act Naturally," about two estranged stepsisters who inherit a nudist resort. The film, which Riley directed and Hall stars in and co-produced, premiered on Prescreen on April 30.

Riley and Hall said they expected the film to interest young, indie-leaning audiences. But they didn't foresee the nudist community being a robust market. "We didn't realize that there's 977 nudist resorts in the continental United States alone, each one with about 1,000 to 3,000 people," Riley said. Many of them, Hall added, viewed the movie multiple times and purchased DVDs of the film.

In its first three weeks, the "Act Naturally" Prescreen page has been viewed more than 170,000 times, making it the most popular movie page on the site. Riley said the film has been rented more than 4,500 times, far exceeding his modest expectations.

Despite its current independent character, Prescreen has broader ambitions. Wilson said the company is working to attract content from mainstream Hollywood. "We want to be seen as a resource for everyone from filmmakers and distributors all the way up to the studios," he said.

As a result, the site recently began showing and tracking trailers for the upcoming movies "Men in Black 3," "Prometheus" and "Savages."

business@latimes.com

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