FIVE YEARS AGO, aspiring filmmakers arrived at the Sundance Film Festival expecting to network with studio execs and bask in the attention of the Hollywood press. Today they can count on an altogether different perk: furnishing their homes with free stuff.With opening night less than two weeks off, Park City is bracing for an avalanche of swag. Mobile marketing teams are staging recon missions, erecting celebrity lodges on every available plot of Main Street. Gift bags are being assembled for 10 nights of overflow parties. And crates of consumer products, destined for handouts to minor actors, agents and filmmakers, are being packed onto 18-wheelers. It’s all part of a big push by marketers to raise their profile among industry trendsetters. The fest is fast becoming the Super Bowl of the indie film world, a 10-day marketing orgy in which the competition among film premieres is matched only by the competition among marketers, most of them spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to milk the event for maximum exposure. The net result is that Park City will become the international capital of product placement for 10 days in January. If I were a B celebrity, I might ditch my plane ticket and rent a U-haul van. How else are you expected to accommodate all the free stereo equipment, ski gear, digital cameras and iPods thrown your way? THE SWAG BOONDOGGLE – let’s just call it a swagdoggle — has put the nonprofit Sundance Institute in an uncomfortable bind. For years, the Institute has carefully cultivated an exclusive lineup of sponsors. This year, there are 20, ranging from Volkswagen to Cesar dog food. These companies enjoy use of the festival trademark and lots of multiplatform publicity in return for a relatively minor cash injection and a contribution to the festival infrastructure. VW is providing a fleet of cars; Hewlett-Packard is supplying high-end workstations; L’Oreal will handle makeup services; Cesar is sponsoring “Doggie Day Care” and a “Pet Day Spa” (That’s good news for Paris Hilton: Tinkerbell will have something to do between screenings). What’s vexing the Institute is the proliferation of unofficial sponsors — marketers joining the Sundance swagdoggle without underwriting the festival itself. “It hurts our ability to raise sponsorship dollars when there are people who ambush the festival so heavily,” Sundance Institute head of strategic development Elizabeth Daly told me. “Companies don’t understand the very thing they want to be associated with and support, they’re hurting with their short-term, big-bang Park City presence.” AMONG THOSE ANGLING for a big-bang Park City presense are Cadillac and Chevy, both owned by GM. The Detroit marketing behemoth is attempting to supplant VW as Sundance’s most buzzed-about automaker by importing a fleet of Escalades and Tahoes to “provide hot wheels and cool rides for Hollywood’s high-profile attendees.” That “hot wheels” line comes from a press release promoting the Village at the Lift, a 30,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex erected on Main Street and showcasing more than a dozen companies that didn’t make the official Sundance list (among them Cadillac, Chevy, Philips, Yahoo!, Heineken, UGG Australia and Frigidaire). The Village at the Lift, otherwise known as swagdoggle central, is a joint venture of Fred Segal Beauty, BNC and Best Events. As BNC prexy Chris Robichaud tells it, the Village is a boon to the festival, a VIP hub on Park City’s main drag, custom-fitted for junkets, meeting space, lounges, restaurants, Internet cafes — all the things that celebrities might need when they’re not watching movies or filling their travel bags with free stuff. The challenge for all these brands: getting anyone to pay attention. After a few days of parties and screenings, all the ambush marketing begins to blend together. “It’s logo soup,” one marketer told me. “You don’t know who’s sponsoring what.” The situation might not to sit well with the festival’s founding father, Robert Redford, who’d rather view the event as an oasis of cinema than a mecca of marketing. But he better get used to it. Increasingly, it seems, you can’t have one without the other.
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