Corporate fest sponsors offer lucrative support

The indie scene has always exhibited a scrappy side, but it attracts a demographic undeniably cherished by corporate marketers — the arthouse audience.

That’s why Levi-Strauss poured sponsorship coin into 1998’s traveling Classically Independent Film Festival. Reaching out to that demo was also behind Perrier’s creation of the Bubbling Up Award for emerging filmmakers.

PalmOne, for its part, envisioned a publicity blitz at Cannes when it handed out Palm Pilots to celebrities and just about everyone else in 2000. After all, what better way to plant the seeds of brand loyalty in the consumer psyche of 18- to 35-year-olds than to have their favorite indie celeb decked out in Docker khakis and sipping a Perrier while tapping the screen of the newest Palm digital personal assistant?

“Sponsors come onboard for various reasons,” explains Lori Willcox, senior director of development at the Toronto Film Festival. “They may be introducing a new product, repositioning an old one or looking at brand expansion. Corporate entertaining can also be a part of the mix.” The benefits work both ways, of course, since the tremendous expense of staging a world-class film festival in the 21st century mandates that organizers seek out corporate coin.

“Do you have a ton of money?” asks Christian Gaines, director of the AFI Fest, in response to a question regarding alternatives to corporate sponsorship. This autumn, the American Film Institute event will offer its sponsors value-added exposure through its alliance with IFTA, which, for the first time ever, will hold the American Film Market concurrently with AFI Fest. Shuttle buses will run among event venues until 1 a.m.

“Ours is a global film event that takes place in the film capitol of the world,” says Gaines, “(and the AFM) plays host to the international film community. The festival attracts a well-heeled, trend-setting demographic, and with 47,000 consumers and 400 filmmakers attending, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Up the coast, Steve Bartlett, development coordinator for the Seattle Film Festival, explains that his increasingly popular event relies on corporate sponsorship for some 85%-90% of its needs. Whether it’s straight cash or in-kind contributions, the festival would not have reached its current size without corporate largesse.

“We offer great exposure because we have such enormous attendance,” Bartlett says, adding that the exposure reaches far beyond the Pacific Northwest. “Our major sponsors have their logos attached to our trailer that runs in movie theaters up and down the West Coast.”

Like other festivals, Bartlett presents audience demographic studies to potential sponsors. Long-term relationships are something of the Holy Grail when it comes to corporate sponsorship.

Toronto’s Willcox explains that the Canadian festival has structured year-round relationships based on events beyond the fest itself. But, perhaps, the most ideal of long-term relationships took root in the aftermath of 9/11 when Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff teamed up with American Express to mount the first Tribeca Film Festival in May 2002.

The uniqueness of the relationship may well reflect the uniqueness of the Gotham neighborhood fest. “The genesis of the festival was really part of the answer to the question: How do we get people to come back downtown?” explains Hatkoff. “It would have to be a community event, a cultural event and an industry event.”

Most nascent festivals begin their planning 18-24 months before opening day. Tribeca was put together in less than a year, and it wasn’t until two months before the opening ceremonies that American Express announced its multimillion-dollar, multiyear commitment to the festival.

“We were starting to look at returning more than 3,000 employees to our building in Tribeca,” says American Express spokeswoman Judy Tenzer, explaining that the staff had been scattered about numerous locations after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. “We wanted our employees to feel that there was something going on around them and that we were helping to rebuild the neighborhood. After all, we’ve been in Lower Manhattan for more than 150 years.”

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of community outreach,” says Hatkoff, whose offices are located at another neighborhood landmark, the Tribeca Film Center. “It really is a community festival.”

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