Lessons from the Lab: Driving The Parking Lot Movie

IndiesLab Director Davin Hutchins runs through the digital successes achieved by the Independent Lens film, The Parking Lot Movie.

For those of you who aren’t aware of the mission of IndiesLab, it is a joint initiative of ITVS and PBS and our goal is to test and devise strategies for filmmaker success on emerging online distribution platforms. Our distribution partners include iTunes, Amazon Video-On-Demand, Hulu, YouTube, SnagFilms, PBS Video, and several other video-on-demand services on cable.

In IndiesLab’s first year, we focused on establishing and strengthening relationships with these new partners. We spent much of our second year placing great ITVS and Independent Lens titles onto these platforms. In year two, we learned that just because a film resides on a prominent platform does not necessarily mean it will break out. It turns out the keys to success are: first, making a film available digitally when it is most visible elsewhere; and second, support it by concentrated online marketing and smart, tight windowing.

This strategy aims to maximize revenue first while striving to reach the widest audience possible down the road. This year’s season of Independent Lens gave us an opportunity to put our theories into practice. And we witnessed some extremely positive signs with Meghan Eckman’s The Parking Lot Movie and its initial release on iTunes.

Meghan did the hard work months ago by hiring friend and social media consultant Howard Arnn after the film’s critical praise at South by Southwest. Arnn’s goal: to revamp her website with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and e-mail newsletter buttons to grow her core base. Short video was key.

Meghan says,  “At several points along the film’s career, we created a first-person video of me in our communications just conveying our strategy and telling the audience what we needed them to do. We told the audience that we’re a small, independent film and we could use their help.”

As we mentioned in previous case studies on Beyond the Box, we noticed iTunes appears to have a “virtuous cycle” where robust rentals and sales in the first few weeks help create a longer tail over time. So we recommended to Meghan that the most effective thing she could do is reach out to her fans and get them to rate and review the film on iTunes.

On the ITVS and PBS side, we deployed Google, Facebook, and PBS.org banner ad campaigns and Facebook fan outreach to promote the film’s availability on iTunes. This resulted in millions of impressions for Meghan’s film and tens of thousands of clicks to The Parking Lot Movie’s iTunes page.

Meghan also kicked her network into high gear during the film’s first week: “After the Independent Lens national broadcast on PBS, my e-mail list and Facebook fans doubled. So I sent everyone in my network another video and said, ‘Even if you’ve already seen this movie and you liked it, help us make it a bigger hit, by renting it for $2.99 on iTunes. I sent a movie poster to whoever rented it in the first week.”

In the first month after its debut, The Parking Lot Movie cracked the Top 10 on iTunes documentary list for three weeks straight. Through grassroots efforts, Meghan and IndiesLab helped stimulate more than 81 ratings and dozens of reviews. In two short months, The Parking Lot Movie has sold or rented more than 1,300 units on iTunes alone. The strength of its iTunes performance also helped IndiesLab in its discussions to get the film on Netflix and cable VOD.

What we are learning at the lab is there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to a successful online debut, but creativity, collaboration, and coordination can really help kick-start an independent film’s digital career.