How AT&T’s DirecTV Is Using Analytics to Boost Independent Films

“We’re adding a window in front of the theatrical premiere,” AT&T Executive Hanny Patel tells TheWrap

Left behind by studios focused on big-budget tentpoles, independent films need a champion. And one of the world’s biggest telecom companies has become an unlikely one.

AT&T-owned DirecTV agreed on a partnership with indie A24 in 2013 that turned into its Cinema Exclusives program, where select independent films are premiered on DirecTV for a short period of time, usually 30 days, before they hit theaters. Films cost between $10.99 and $12.99 to view.

Hanny Patel, Vice President of Video Marketing for AT&T Entertainment Group and one of the creators of the Cinema Exclusives program, told TheWrap that the program wasn’t intended to drive revenue on its own, rather to enhance the value proposition of DirecTV, but it’s outperformed financially so far. One of the keys to that: big data.

“We really look at what our customers like,” Patel said. “We have analytics. We know who is watching these films. We’re able to handpick films that we really know would appeal.”

Patel said that knowledge has come with time and experimentation.

“We learned a lot in the first year,” she said. “We experimented with all different types of films. We’ve been able to kind of hone in on what works. Thriller genre works, action, a little mystery sci-fi angle really resonates with our customers.”

Patel said the program is unsurprisingly most popular with parents of kids who like movies but can’t always get out to the theater. Viewers are spread evenly across geographic locations, and Saturday night is the most popular viewing window, followed by Friday. And she said there’s plenty of crossover between Cinema Exclusives fans and some of DirecTV’s other offerings.

“What’s nice is we found people that are engaging with exclusives are engaging with other pay-per-views,” she said.

She said the idea for Cinema Exclusives came from solving two fundamental problems with the state of independent films. One, independent films occupying a sort of budgetary middle ground had become much less valuable to studios banking on global blockbusters. And those that did get made were often restricted to a handful of theaters in cities like Los Angeles and New York, leaving potential fans in the rest of the country out of luck until they hit places like Netflix many months after the fact.

“There were more and more great quality independent films being produced, but they just weren’t surfacing,” she said. “Studios didn’t have funding for them, so they weren’t getting a lot of love.”

She saw an opportunity for DirecTV, which has a history of offering exclusive services to his subscribers – most notably Sunday Ticket, which gives football fans the opportunity to watch every out-of-market Sunday NFL game. – to do something for indie film fans.

“We’ve had a legacy of exclusive content, from Sunday Ticket to the Audience network,” she said. “We didn’t have anything like that in the movie space.”

Since launching the program in 2013, DirecTV has shown more than 55 movies to its subscribers before their theatrical release through its Cinema Exclusives program. Those films have come from independent studios including A24 – its first partner – as well as Saban Films, IFC, Vertical Entertainment and eOne. “Morris from America” star Craig Robinson recently got nominated for a Gotham Award – the first nomination for a DirecTV Cinema Exclusives film.

And importantly to Patel, those movies are being shown to people far from the arthouse theaters of Manhattan or Los Angeles who might otherwise miss out on them, which gives DirecTV another way to differentiate itself from competitors.

“We have 20 million customers all over the U.S.,” Patel said. “They’d never get a chance to see those independent films.”

Patel said the program came about from brainstorming sessions and meeting with studio partners, where they came up with the idea of premiering a movie on DirecTV exclusively for 30 days before its makes it to theaters – and in many cases, not to cinemas near where the bulk of DirecTV subscribers live.

“We’re adding a window in front of the theatrical premiere,” she said.

And that has worked well for filmmakers, she said. DirecTV commits a seven-figure marketing budget to each film in the program, which gives them heightened awareness both on the satellite platform and in theaters. Just like billboards, the DirecTV channel guide is a place that gets plenty of eyeballs.

“One of the really nice unintended consequences is that we’re building awareness for that film pre-theatrical and it kind of helps that film succeed throughout its life cycle,” she said.

That’s helped DirecTV make more deals to bring other films into its fold. Patel acknowledges the Cinema Exclusives program is not for every movie – some are best suited for a traditional release – but she said it’s a much easier conversation with filmmakers now than it was when they launched the program.

“It’s been an education process for sure,” Patel said. “I remember our first few meetings – I went to Toronto and I’m sure they thought I had three heads. It’s really turned into something that works. It’s truly a partnership with the studio. It’s a full package presented.”