Sponsor traffic crowds fest lane

Brand overcrowding forces marketers to seek other events, multiyear deals

Film festival organizers are experiencing a trend you’re not going to hear too many of them complain about.

Festivals from Sundance to Telluride are becoming increasingly overrun by sponsors looking to cash in on their “cool” factor and attractive demographics to introduce new products, reposition existing ones or just increase brand awareness.

That means more cash in fest coffers, but the brands themselves are feeling crowded, while auds bemoan promo overkill.

For example, at this year’s Sundance, Volkswagen of America provided transportation to filmmakers, jury, talent and VIPs. It also hosted the Sundance Volkswagen Main Street Lounge, a two-story venue where it gave away freebies to celebs and held two parties.

Despite the money it spent to be Sundance’s “official automotive sponsor” for a third consecutive year, the automaker had to watch as General Motors rolled into Park City, also for the third year. GM offered up a fleet of Cadillac Escalades and GMC Yukons to ferry passengers around town.

The carmaker also had to compete for attention with Sundance’s other official sponsors, which included Hewlett-Packard, American Express, Andersen Windows and Doors, Cingular Wireless, Delta Air Lines, DirecTV, Intel, Aquafina, Adobe Systems and Moviefone.

In addition, companies like Motorola and Yahoo! hosted their own lodges and venues. Blender magazine hosted concerts backed by Budweiser, Nautica, Oakley and Le Tigre, and everyone from Levi’s to Fred Segal, Turning Leaf wine to Cesar’s pet food filled the town with signage, product, parties and displays.

Ironically, marketing mavens were attracted to fests in order to avoid the clutter that typifies commercial time on TV.

Car companies like Volkswagen, GM and, more recently, Audi, continue to dominate the festival circuit.

Additionally, Apple has yet to discover a festival it didn’t like. And that’s especially true if it caters to indie filmmakers likely to edit films with its Final Cut Pro editing software and its line of computers.

But the overcrowding of brands at events like Sundance has forced marketers to plant their flags on other events and block out rivals through multiyear deals.

Starting Labor Day weekend, Apple will serve as presenting sponsor of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Volkswagen is a major sponsor of the Toronto Film Festival. American Express has served as the presenting sponsor of the Tribeca Film Festival since it was founded in 2002.

Some brands are seeing potential in year-round partnerships.

When Audi of America paired up with the American Film Institute late last year, the company had bigger plans than just slapping its four-ringed logo on the school’s AFI Fest — held each November — as presenting sponsor.

The German automaker was able to link itself to Hollywood’s creative community and trendsetters, while working with an org that provides promotional opportunities all year long. Audi covers the costs of the AFI at ArcLight film series, and participates in the American Film Market via AFI’s relationship with the mart.

What proved appealing to Audi was not just the international audience that the AFI Fest attracts, but the institute. “We wanted to be with the core people who represent creativity in Hollywood,” says Stephen Berkov, Audi’s director of marketing, adding that the company was looking for the right fit with the automaker’s “leadership and authenticity” motto.

Audi quickly got involved in producing its own film-based events and content, including the recent Step Ahead With Audi A3: Personal Journeys With AFI Fest Filmmakers competition. Three filmmakers chosen from AFI Fest 2004 competed for the opportunity to take a three-week road trip in the automaker’s new A3 compact luxury car. The participants created their own 15-minute documentaries on an emerging trend of their choosing. The films will be screened at AFI Fest.

The directors also posted blogs on the Audi Web site, where the finished films appear. Given the road-trip concept, the A3 appears prominently in each film.

Such an in-your-face relationship with a sponsor might have been a turnoff for an earlier generation, but today’s filmmakers — at least the Audi AFI trio — don’t appear to mind.

One of them, Jonathan Levine, enthused in a pitch for his docu, which explored online dating: “The A3 will represent the model, the overarching metaphor, for my personal journey of discovery. I aspire to embody everything the A3 represents: to be active, sophisticated, to be a leader. … I’m also hoping it will help me with the ladies.”

In the final scene of Levine’s film, “Love Bytes,” the director bids his silver car a fond farewell in the rain, and the vehicle beeps its own goodbye.

None of this swayed the judges (including thesps James Cromwell, Joshua Jackson and Emily Mortimer), who gave the prize to Kristina Robbins-Higgins. She received a new A3 and $10,000 for her docu “Life as You Know It,” which focused on nontraditional parenting as practiced by active professionals.

Meanwhile, festival organizers are not likely to complain about sponsor incursion.

As is true for many other fests, multiyear, multimillion-dollar corporate sponsorships account for a significant part of the budget of AFI Fest.

“We really value the relationships with our corporate sponsors,” says AFI Fest director Christian Gaines. “We want to leverage them as much as possible.”

Gaines says Audi’s dollars help enhance programming through more upscale events, and improvements in staffing, venues, transportation and hospitality.

“It allows us to grow and provide a better, higher-quality experience for everybody,” Gaines says. “It enables us to put on a good show.”

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