Potential buyers must examine their marketing plans

As film festivals have become big business in the last few years, they have come to rely more and more on corporate and local sponsors. Sundance alone depends on everyone from the likes of Mercedes and Blockbuster at the big-bucks “presenting” level of donors (in the $250,000 vicinity) to Balance Bar and the local Radisson Inn at the lower “major” level. In fact, more than 90 companies — from clothing and liquor to hotels and distribution companies — have signed on as Sundance sponsors, despite budget cuts by those who normally back such events.

While smaller fests are feeling the economic crunch, losing airlines and other major supporters, the visibility and press coverage of Sundance makes it one of the last events to be cut from sponsors’ budgets.

Across the festival and event calendar, however, companies and institutions are starting to take a closer look at what they get for their sponsorship dollars. A sign in front of the bar at a party and a logo in the program book are no longer enough incentive to lure major wallets.

Personal interest in film

Companies willing to shell out up to a quarter-million dollars have to be crystal clear on how the festival fits into their marketing plans and what objectives they are trying to meet. With so many sponsors, it’s not always easy to carve out an identity, and some observers have decried the increasing commercialism of many fests. In the “official sponsor” category alone, beverages include a winery, a brewery, a champagne and a vodka.

What’s in it for a vodka company, for example, to come in as an official sponsor?

“The owner of Skyy (Maurice Kantor) has a personal interest in film,” says Skyy Vodka brand director Teresa Zepeda. “Our whole marketing program revolves around cinema.”

According to Zepeda, Skyy is targeting “intellectually curious, innovative, independently minded people who appreciate art and unique things.” In the minds of Skyy and many other marketers, this demographic is synonymous with film fest attendees.

DaimlerChrysler is so eager to reach festgoers, the automaker is sponsoring a nine-month-long filmmaking competition, staging announcements and events at Sundance, Cannes and Toronto in the process.

While Chrysler is not an official Sundance sponsor (Mercedes is the fest’s official car), Chrysler and Hypnotic will use the Park City platform to announce the Chrysler 2002 Million Dollar Film Festival, which culminates in a $1 million award to make a feature film incorporating the PT Cruiser car in its storyline. According to Hypnotic prexy Doug Scott, Chrysler’s marketing team is looking to reach the 18-34 demographic and “surround themselves with design, music and film,” thus the festival publicity strategy.

The festival experience

Sundance director of corporate relations Kathyrn Bise admits there have been less new inquiries this year and less growth in sponsorships. But, she says, “We’re pleased that we’re welcoming back most of our returning sponsorships. When a company faces economic challenges, priorities are revisited. But as companies are looking where to allocate their resources, I think a festival makes sense as a place to come together.

“Sponsors want to engage with the festivalgoers in a more meaningful way,” Bise offers. “Some of the most successful sponsors connect directly back to the festival experience.”

Skyy, for example, is the official sponsor of the American Spectrum section, which “gives us ownership of a section of the festival,” says Zepeda. “We can draw more of a connection to the brand. It’s got to be more integrated. Skyy was invented in the U.S. and celebrates new voices and independent spirits.”

Bise says Sundance is moving more toward year-round sponsorships, with companies supporting the Sundance Institute’s various programs as well as the festival.

And Skyy’s Zepeda agrees that while events and fests are important, Skyy’s other film-related programs, such as the shorts that premiere on Skyy.com, are equally integral.

Sponsors and fests agree that working together all year long is a way to survive the current economic climate and make sure the companies’ messages are clearly communicated.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more