Mood Matches Economy, Times at Sundance

But Buzz Is Subtler; Brand-Integration Players Stand Out

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Cassandra Bates
Cassandra Bates

You would never know it walking down Main Street here in Park City, Utah, that it was the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival. No balloons, no fireworks -- true to founder Robert Redford's nature, it was subtle and understated.

Even the logo chosen for this year's festival on sweatshirts in hues of brown was restrained, simply "85 09." No pomp, no circumstance. Having attended the festival for 15 years, I was expecting a bit more sizzle. Even the buzz about films felt slightly subdued. Walking down Main Street this week was a throwback to smaller crowds from 10-plus years ago. Only this time, for-sale signs jumped out at the eye, compared with last year's entirely rebranded Main Street without a single storefront available for rent.

Stars were prevalent at the heavily branded MySpace Cafe.
Stars were prevalent at the heavily branded MySpace Cafe.
Obviously marketers were cutting back, and it was felt in a number of darkened storefronts and unrented properties. And several major movers and shakers in the indie-film scene were drawn to the drama and excitement unfolding in Washington this week.

Stars still shine
But revelers were not disappointed at the MySpace cafe, at the town lift of the Park City Ski Resort. Sitting next to Liam Neeson and ZZ Top after brushing past a friendly Robin Williams is always a good way to spend lunch. Some were lucky enough to have actress Emmy Rossum as their guest waitress while Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind made people want to update their profile accounts with new pics onsite. Publicists and PR mavens abounded this year, as did talent such as Ewan McGregor, who thanked the audience for his Visionary Award and his return to Sundance after 14 years (last seen here in his breakthrough roll in "Trainspotting") at the Ray Ban/ASCAP Music Tent.

The biggest distinction in the experience this year were smaller crowds and a more-contained party scene, compared to Deer Valley Mansion parties with Macy Gray singing of yesteryear. However, 50 Cent didn't disappoint this year, gathering a good crowd out by the Canyons.

The eco movement penetrated a piece of Sundance, from the Green House at the top of Main Street to Brita's reusable neon-green bottles helping to decrease the environmental impact of empty plastic water bottles.

A big hit for HP was a savvy political tie-in as writers and filmgoers read their favorite Obama quotes that were then uploaded onto YouTube.
A big hit for HP was a savvy political tie-in as writers and filmgoers read their favorite Obama quotes that were then uploaded onto YouTube.
Seeing the difference
As you walk from site to site, you feel a major distinction in the experience between brands that slap on signage vs. those that integrate their essence and help the event transcend geographical borders.

One such brand was Hewlett-Packard. The hardware maker owned its technology position by infiltrating the back end of tech support for most other sponsors onsite. Its lounge was decorated with massive high-quality, movie-poster-size photographs of celebs and pink floral Vivian Tam laptops and gave off the aura of couture-meets-disheveled filmmaker. A big hit for HP over the opening weekend was a savvy political tie-in as writers and filmgoers read their favorite Obama quotes that were then uploaded onto YouTube for those outside of Utah to savor a bit of the experience from Main Street.

(Full disclosure: I've worked with HP, VfC, MySpace, ESPN, DirecTV, Honda, Nickelodeon and T-Mobile. But not all are current clients. Current ARF members are ESPN, Nickelodeon and T-Mobile.)

Walking back up Main Street on Sunday, the next stop was Harry O's, where DirecTV partnered with ESPN, Sundance Channel and AMC. The National Football League's divisional championships aired on big-screen TVs, as pro athletes and Hollywood stars co-mingled at the scene, helping DirecTV create a unique brand experience. Of course, the ultimate measure of success is new customer activation at year end, said Jon Gieselman, Senior VP-advertising and PR, DirecTV.

Celebrating indie spirit
Around the corner, on lower Main just above the ASCAP music tent, Honda showed off the hydrogen-fueled FCX Clarity and the Insight Hybrid to the uber-environmentally conscientious Hollywood crowd. If you were lucky enough to get into movie premieres at Eccles Theater, you'd see some of the stars being delivered to the front door by an Insight and a short documentary by Honda itself. Barbara Ponce, manager of corporate advertising, said the tie-in was a good one to bring Honda's "Power of Dreams" campaign to life. Honda had launched its own doc series of six- to seven-minute shorts online (dreams.honda.com).

Honda showed off the Insight Hybrid to the uber-environmentally conscientious Hollywood crowd.
Honda showed off the Insight Hybrid to the uber-environmentally conscientious Hollywood crowd.
In the midst of specific films, some brands wanted to take a step back and celebrate an entourage, such as VfC's 7 Jeans, which partnered with GenArt on "Seven for all Mankind-7 Fresh Faces" in film. Leilani Augustine of Seven Jeans said it was a direct fit for the brand's positioning: fashion, art, celebrity, entertainment, aka Face, and its celebrity-driven business. A packed crowd at the Hollywood Life House showed the brand giving back to the indie spirit that supported its launch eight years ago in Los Angeles. But good luck finding a pair of Seven's on display, and on that night there was no retail or mass-market tie-in for consumers across the country that may have desired a celebrity fix and a virtual sneak peak at their favorite brand.

The following night, Kenneth Cole Black fragrance partnered with GenArt to promote "five actors who make it better in the Dark," saluting the actors' long-standing commitment to the art of independent film. A massive line led to a red carpet and about 40 clicking press cameras. Kenneth Cole himself mingled with a good mix of on- and off-screen talent. Ashley Barrett, senior director-global public relations at Coty Prestige, said Mr. Cole was using the event to come up with ideas for new product development.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cassandra Bates is senior VP-marketing and development for the ARF. She's responsible for advising clients such as Walmart, NFL, Televisa and Facebook on data-driven strategy and marketing and advertising solutions, and for developing all new business for the 72-year-old cross-industry think tank. This is her 15th year at Sundance.

The celeb experience
If you were willing to get on the shuttle or hoof it out to the Yard that BNC created, you'd find Hollywood fashion maven Fred Segal; SpongeBob SquarePants celebrating his 10th anniversary; a Gatorade Gym; and a T-Mobile Cafe, which encouraged patrons to use the new G1 phone to order. While T-Mobile incorporated some film trailers on the G1 to watch while you wait at the cafe, not many of the other brands seemed to tie-in with the films showing down the road at Eccles.

No doubt the closed-door celebrity-clientele experience as you're escorted from lounge to lounge might translate into retail, online and mobile environments for curious fans across the country. If marketers can figure out how put their sponsorships on steroids by rolling out to the mass market in a mixed-media world, imagine the possibilities -- CFOs thrilled with the multiplying ROI, consumers engaged by the entertainment on their way to the cash register, and, yes, even filmmakers creating content around a brand's essence.

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