Once Anti-Establishment, Film Festival Grows as Corporate Brand Carnival

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LOS ANGELES ( -- Even as it's increasingly targeted by critics for its creeping commercialism, this year's Sundance Film Festival will feature more brand sponsors and tie-ins than ever before.
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Robert Redford, who created the Sundance Festival in 1980, leans over a balcony on Park City's mainstreet during the 2003 festival.

Dozens of major marketers will once again flock to Park City, Utah, to schmooze with the independent film community and the Hollywood A-listers who will gather for 10 days starting next week. But with so many brands proliferating the festival, marketing mavens are beginning to question just how they can keep their companies from disappearing amid the clutter.

Counterculture, anti-marketing

If it ever was a counterculture, anti-marketing event, there's little sign of those anti-establishment days at the upcoming film festival.

The list of official Sundance sponsors includes Volkswagen of America, Entertainment Weekly, Hewlett-Packard, American Express, Andersen Windows and Doors, Cingular Wireless, Delta Air Lines, DirecTV, Intel, the Sundance Channel, Aquafina, Adobe Systems and Moviefone.

But that's by no means the extent of the brands that will show up there. Everyone from Levi's to Fred Segal, Turning Leaf wine and even Cesar's pet food will blanket the town with signage, product, parties and displays. Video-game companies, including Midway Games, Activision, Vivendi Universal, Nintendo and Ubisoft, will host events to premiere their newest titles, like the latest installment of the Ubisoft's "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell" franchise, or to sponsor lodges.
Photo: AP
Robert Redford, who created the Sundance Festival in 1980, leans over a balcony on Park City's mainstreet during the 2003 festival.

And will co-host a party to showcase the short films it produced for its Web site last year.

Many marketers make the pilgrimage each year, with most increasing their promotions this time around. There are a few novices, such as Yahoo, which is setting up a cafe where celebrities can eat, surf the Web and get customized T-shirts.

Yahoo brand

"We have no offline presence -- you can't walk into our store or wear our clothing," said Linda Bennett, Yahoo's senior marketing director. "We want to give people the opportunity to interact with our brand in the real world."

Marketing executives said they are aware of the brand proliferation and tried to structure their programs with that in mind. They're trying to stand out in the crowd, which can be difficult.

"Brands have to take a hard look -- does it make sense to the audience attending, do they understand why the marketer is there?" said David Pinsky, director of entertainment marketing at Motorola. "Is there a natural synergy between the brand and the event?"

Motorola has been at Sundance for seven years and has hosted the Motorola Lodge for the past five, which Mr. Pinsky described as a "relaxing retreat, not a free-for-all," where celebrities and filmmakers can hang out between events. Marketers like Nintendo, Converse and Kiehl's have brand reps at the lodge to talk to A-listers and give out product. Motorola executives expect to dole out the brand's hot new model, the Razr V3 cellphone.

Potential for blending

"There's the potential of blending together when there are a lot of brands," Mr. Pinsky said. "But we try to set ourselves apart by the type of place we have, and we're consistent about that."

Motorola is heavily involved in the Independent Spirit Awards and the Toronto Film Festival, among other Hollywood insider events "where appropriate," Mr. Pinsky said. "That's what's most important to us -- the relevance."

General Motors Corp. will, for the third year, dispatch a fleet of Cadillac Escalades and GMC Yukons to ferry celebrities to and from the airport, around town and to screenings and parties. The marketer added a charitable component this year, planning to auction a Chevrolet Silverado pickup autographed by celebrities. The money raised will go to a nonprofit group in Park City.

Village at the Lift sponsor hub

GM is part of the Village at the Lift, a hub of sponsor activity at the base of the ski slopes in Park City. The marketer sees Sundance as a "great sampling opportunity," said Mike Jackson, GM's general manager for the Western region.

"Part of our strategy in the West is to change the opinion and ultimately get the influencers to consider our product," Mr. Jackson said. "Having them experience the product is the best way to do that."

Heineken, also a Village at the Lift sponsor, wants to establish deeper ties with the independent filmmaking community; the brand started buying time recently on the Independent Film Channel. After some guerrilla marketing at last year's festival, there will be an increased presence this year, but with a focus that executives hope will keep them out of the fray.

"We're not trying to be part of the big, shiny celebrity scene," said Andy Glaser, Heineken's brand director. "We're trying to make a statement to independent filmmakers, who we think share our brand sensibility."

Organizers of Village at the Lift said such marketing is part of many brands' year-round strategy of reaching out to celebrities.

'Nontraditional ways to reach influencers'

"Brands are really starting to look at nontraditional ways to reach influencers," said Chris Robichaud, president and chief operating officer of BNC Marketing & PR. "And they're doing this on an ongoing basis to build the relationships."

For the second year Dennis Publishing's Blender magazine is hosting live concerts in downtown Park City. This year's lineup turns up the star power, said Blender's associate publisher, Eric Simon. Performers include Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Crystal Method, Kings of Leon and Dashboard Confessional.

"We saw a real opportunity to own the late-night scene," Mr. Simon said. "There was a tremendous void in the marketplace."

Blender brought in several of its advertisers -- Budweiser, Nautica, Oakley and Le Tigre among them -- as sponsors of the Blender Sessions.

Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser, a newbie to the festival last year, is stepping up its activity this time around by sending up-and-coming bands it sponsors to the Blender Sessions as opening acts. The marketer, a longtime Blender advertiser, is one of several the concert's sponsors.

"Last year, our involvement was minimal," said Andy Goeler, Budweiser's director of marketing. "But it's such a good association that we wanted to do something more. Having our bands there is more subtle than a lot of in-your-face marketing."
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