Every year, there’s something about Sundance that was better in the old days. In 2008, believe it or not, it’s celebrity endorsements.
While there’s no shortage of star power at this year’s fest — Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis came to support “What Just Happened?,” while U2 is in force for “U2:3D” and Colin Farrell showed up for opening night’s “In Bruges” and soccer doc “Kicking It,” which he narrates — the star wattage is decidedly less radiant inside the dozens of branded parties and swag suites.
Top celebs, it seems, have a case of swag backlash. They’re being more circumspect this year, eschewing obvious gift suite appearances and the attendant phalanx of photogs.
There are exceptions, of course. Bon Appetit Supper Club hosted U2 on Saturday night, but the magazine was literally forbidden from publicizing the event in advance: U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, made Bon Appetit publisher Paul Jowdy sign a nondisclosure agreement.
The long writers strike, with many thousands unemployed and suffering back home in Hollywood, may have a lot to do with why celebrities don’t want to be seen partaking in an orgy of luxury freebies this year.
Meanwhile, publicists pray fervently for the likes of a Jack Black swigging a sponsor’s vodka or energy drink to generate photos and buzz. However, events more typically see celeb wattage of the Kevin Sorbo, Rex Lee or Nichole Hiltz variety.
Many of the actors who have reason to be at the festival are simply taking a pass on the swag circuit.
“A lot of the A-listers are staying away from the gift suites due to the excessive media exploitation by corporate sponsors,” said a Los Angeles-based event producer and a six-year veteran of the fest. “They walk across the street and they get bombarded by photographers.”
On Saturday afternoon, a teenage girl became hysterical after taking Black’s picture, reduced to describing the experience to her friends with frantic gestures. Another starstruck fan looked surprised when asked if she was seeing any films. “We’re hoping someone will stop and talk to us and take a picture with us,” said Utah local BreeAnn Manning. “We’re here to see celebrities. We’ll stay until we’re tired and freezing.”
Still, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
One Sundance writer-director-actor appreciated an invitation from the Hollywood Life lounge, which gave him a free place to receive the press. He was considerably less grateful when he found himself subjected to an array of swag publicists trying to place products he neither wanted nor needed in his hands, a photographer at the ready.
Another, more subtle method has the suites sponsoring lavish private dinner parties for Sundance films. The event for Stanley Tucci’s “Blind Date,” an American Spectrum title, was held at the St. Regis suite, which featured a wine bar with top-flight labels such as Shafer and Turley. The Main Event Red Carpet Lounge proved similarly useful for another Spectrum title, Plum Pictures’ “Birds of America,” starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Ben Foster and Matthew Perry.
On one level, it’s a sort of philanthropy to provide cash-poor indie producers with events they couldn’t otherwise afford. More importantly, it’s the only way to assure sponsors that their products will have a shot at name-brand actor adjacency.
Some celebrities shrug it off.
“What do I care?” said “Transsiberian” star Woody Harrelson, waiting inside the Hollywood Life lounge for an interview. “It’s good to be in the position of being asked and it’s easy to say no.”
Chris Pine, star of American Spectrum title “Bottle Shock,” finds the frenzy amusing, for now, but his anonymity has a shelf life; this year, he’ll star in the next bigscreen edition of “Star Trek” as Captain Kirk.
“People come up to me and they say, ‘I love you, what have you been in?’ ” he said. “There was a guy who was trying to gift me and he thought I was Chris Klein. I kept correcting him.”