Corporate America discovers key demos in indie scene

Companies aim ads at young, wealthy fest-goers

HOLLYWOOD — Some promotional marriages are obvious, like consumer goods corporations and megabudget movies, which unite to reach massive audiences.

Less obvious is a budding romance between these same companies and indie film, a niche sector in which a hit pic’s gross is equivalent to half of Harrison Ford’s paycheck. Yet businesses are now clamoring to sponsor film fests big and small, and are devoting substantial resources to the effort. What’s the attraction?

There is growing dread along Madison Avenue that the impact of conventional advertising is weakening, and for many companies, especially those selling prestige items like expensive alcohol, luxury cars or tech products, film events can deliver a demographic direct hit.

“Festival attendees tend to be young, quite well educated, affluent and key influencers within their peer group,” says Jennifer McIntosh, associate director of sponsorship for Bell Canada, a top-tier sponsor for the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

Indeed, according to numbers provided by the festivals, 78% of Sundancers fall between 18-45, with 56% earning upward of $50,000. Likewise, 56% of Toronto’s audience is in the 25-44 range, with 70% in above-average income ranges, and fully 99% holding undergrad degrees or beyond.

But it’s more than just numbers, notes Kathryn Bise, director of corporate relations for Sundance, “it’s the psychographics that interest our sponsors; it’s an audience that is curious, adventurous, open-minded and innovative.”

For example, Skyy Vodka — whose numerous sponsorships cross the spectrum from the Sundance, Los Angeles and San Francisco festivals to tiny venues like Reel Fest in Crested Butte, Colo. — sees a direct link with the image it’s trying to promote and film events.

Sue Hearn, the label’s PR events manager, enthuses, “Skyy is a maverick brand within our industry, in the same way that indie film is seen as cutting edge, innovative, sometimes sexy. These are attributes that play into the product.”

Corporate funding has long been a mainstay of festival operating budgets. Traditionally, the money has come, and still often comes, in the form of charitable donations. In recent years, however, the relationship between consumer goods companies and fests, particularly the A-list, press-heavy events, has evolved into sophisticated partnerships, handled through marketing departments and ad agencies.

Companies are looking for a return on investment, and this has drawn them into a far more active, value-added role than simply handing over a check.

Festivals like Toronto, Sundance and New York are encouraging this shift. “We try to integrate sponsors programmatically, so they help shape the festival experience,” says Bise.

A case study is the match between Bell Canada and Toronto. The company began its sponsorship with the Bell Infoline in 1995 and then grew to include a branded Web site,, which at the time was a luxury for an arts organization.

Working together with the festival, and relying on market research conducted annually by Bell, new features have been added yearly, including online ticket sales and email news alerts, plus availability to Bell’s mobile phone customers.

Most astonishing is Bell’s claim that the site logged close to 33 million hits last year, though a count of unique users was unavailable.

Using hip fest demos, Zenith used Sundance to reposition its image and new line of digital consumer products, while Microsoft pops up in places as diverse as Cannes and Slamdance.

Corporate alliances often provide festivals with much needed promotional dollars.

“Our sponsors on average will spend three times their investment on marketing (their fest affiliation),” says Toronto’s senior director of development and marketing, Lori Willcox.

In fact, this is one of the chief benefits provided to the New York Film Festival by Grand Marnier. Scheiffelin & Somerset, the label’s importer, produces a trailer that is unspooled in New York cinemas, and places ads on VH1, Bravo and local cable net NY1. This year, the company has leased a billboard in Times Square, a level of exposure the fest could never afford on its own.

To attract the right partners, the festivals have learned to professionalize their development efforts, a process that, everyone agrees, takes several years to achieve.

Toronto topper Piers Handling recalls, “In the early days you’re more concerned with your event. We didn’t want to hear the stories about sponsors being unhappy. We had to learn to listen.”

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