Sundance: a new mecca for shill-seekers

THE RISE OF INDEPENDENT FILM is the best thing to happen to Madison Avenue in years. If you have any doubts, just consider a few scenes from Main Street in Park City, epicenter of the marketing orgy that’s enveloped the Sundance Film Festival like a blinding snowstorm.

Volkswagen is about to introduce a two-door hatchback called the GTI to the U.S. market. They haven’t yet aired a single TV commercial for the GTI, but inside the VW hospitality suite at Sundance (site of the publicity junket and cocktail party for “Little Miss Sunshine,” the first $10 million acquisition of the festival) you’ll find paintings of the GTI, a fleet of model cars and cushions made from the same fabric as the GTI car seats. Five GTIs are tooling around the neighborhood hot off the assembly line, and a tent has been erected at Main Street’s busiest intersection containing an electric slot car race with model GTIs.

I asked Kerry Martin, director of brand innovation at VW of America, why she would take a million-plus dollars out of her advertising budget to sponsor a film festival. Sundance, she told me, “is perfectly aligned with the values of the brand. Robert Redford uses the same language to describe the festival — risk-taking, the sense of discovery, democracy — that I would use to describe the brand and our customers.”

It occurred to me that you could use those same words to describe any number of cars, be it a Hummer or a Toyota Prius (OK, maybe not a Honda Civic). But that’s the point. Talk to the brand gurus from Frigidaire, Starbucks, Aquafina water, Cesar dog food or any of the other marketers who’ve converged on Park City, and they’ll use the same platitudes to describe their products. It’s all about hip consumerism, cultural rebellion, questioning authority, free speech.

Consider the Starbucks Salon, a performance space on Main Street that today will host a filmmakers roundtable featuring the directors of “Black Gold,” a devastating, documentary about the international coffee trade that is screening in the world documentary competition.

“Black Gold” shows the manager at the original Starbucks in Seattle’s Pike Place Market extolling the company’s virtues. “It’s just amazing,” she marveled, “the lives that we’ve touched. We’re in the people business.”

Cut to a feeding center in Sidama, Ethiopia, the famine-wracked agricultural region from which Starbucks buys its Ethiopian beans, where factory workers earn 50¢ a day.

When I asked a Starbucks marketing exec named Brad Stevens how the company planned to deal with the film, he shot me a pained look, then shrugged: “Our brand is about freedom of expression,” he said.

ALL THIS CORPORATE spin is deftly satirized in Jason Reitman’s caustic K Street spoof, “Thank You for Smoking,” which held its U.S. premiere in Sundance on Saturday night. The film stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, “the Sultan of Spin,” a Teflon-slick lobbyist for Big Tobacco, who somehow manages to charm his way into your good graces even as he’s spouting reptilian sales advice, as when he teaches his young son how to fudge a homework assignment. “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong,” he says.

“This job requires a moral flexibility that goes beyond most people,” Naylor purrs a few scenes later. It’s a sentiment that applies equally well to some of the sales agents, attorneys and spin artists in the Sundance audience. They all laughed knowingly when Naylor embarked on a trip to Hollywood for a meeting with a powerful agent in a cavernous office with a striking similarity to a certain corporate fortress on the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica to concoct a plan to push cigarettes in movies. Informed about a Sony sci-fi thriller called “Message From Sector Six” that needs co-financing from a corporate sponsor, Naylor has this to say: “These days, the message Hollywood needs to send out is that smoking is cool.”

Sound preposterous? Just consider a few of the other unusual products that entertainment marketing companies are pushing at Sundance.

Frigidaire, which is launching a new washer and dryer set called the Affinity, has built a faux igloo on Main Street with mood lighting, white shag carpets and versions of the Affinity in such fashionable colors as Glacier Blue and Platinum Ice. Norelco is launching an electric razor called the Bodygroom, designed for “below the neck” grooming. In a discreet corner of the Philips Norelco gifting suite, celebrities can take turns testing the device by shaving the fuzz from a suspiciously shaped kiwi. What does the Bodygroom have to do with independent cinema? Beats me. but it’s a big hit at Sundance. I arrived at the Norelco lodge too late to watch Tommy Lee shave a kiwi, but apparently he liked it so much he took one home.

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