CES, TCA attendees see toned-down affairs

Judging by last week’s Consumers Electronics Show and Television Critics Assn. confab, it will be a lean scene on the fest and tradeshow circuit this year.

With the economy mired in a deep funk, companies are paring back expenses however they can, thinking twice before sending massive contingents to confabs and husbanding their sponsorship coin more closely. The cutbacks may make it easier for attendees to get rooms and conduct business — especially at overgrown fests like Sundance — but the reduced wattage can’t help but remind return visitors that the economy is in trouble.

CES attendees knew they were in for a toned-down affair from the moment they arrived at the Las Vegas airport, which was festooned with fewer ads than usual. Yahoo scaled its booth way down, and AOL sat out the show altogether; many booths were significantly smaller this year. The room for Microsoft’s keynote by Steve Ballmer was half the size of last year, when Bill Gates did the honors.

Taxi lines were much shorter, and attendance was way down from last year’s 130,000 gathering. However, showbizzers appeared to be out in force heading into the weekend; the Digital Entertainment Group had expected a significantly reduced turnout for its annual cocktail party at the tech confab, but was pleasantly surprised when RSVPs exceeded the room’s capacity at the Bellagio.

Sundance is also shaping up to be a more subdued affair, although a week before its Jan. 15 kickoff, exactly how subdued was open to debate. Adobe, Volkswagen and Motorola all bailed on this year’s fest, but Honda stepped in, and Sundance sanctioned Village at the Lift as Sundance Lift, a supposedly sponsor-free zone for hospitality and events.

Although fest reps continue to insist that the event is more popular than ever, lodging vacancies tell a different story. It was possible for savvy attendees to negotiate significantly lower rates this year. And, as with CES, good rooms were still available a few weeks before opening day — an unheard-of level of availability compared to recent years.

While there will be no dearth of gifting suites and swag huts in Park City — guerrilla marketers still want to reach Sundance scenesters, even if their numbers are reduced — sellers are bracing for a reduced number of buyers at this year’s market.

“People are going to be very careful about how much they pay for movies,” says one acquisitions exec. “It’s a new world.”

This year’s Berlin film fest promises to be scaled down all around. Buyers and exhibitors are significantly below last year’s levels, and execs expect fewer films to unspool at the Feb. 5-12 fest. Organizers admit a dip in attendance in attendance is likely.

Not to worry, market topper Beki Probst told Variety last week: “We will have quality, not quantity. We don’t want overkill.”

The economy is expected to take a further toll on the NATPE TV gathering, which kicks off Jan. 26 in Vegas. Prexy Rick Feldman has openly acknowledged the new economic reality as he urged potential attendees to open their wallets again this year.

Niceties for the media often get trimmed during tough economic times, and this year’s TCA is no exception. Most of the networks scaled back their parties significantly, save Fox, which is still throwing a sizable one. There are a few early-evening cocktail events — the CW is holding one — and Discovery’s throwing a “working dinner.”

The networks are sharing days with their cable brethren to further save costs. And, in another sign of the times, the growth of the online media contingent has at least helped buffer the decreasing number of print reporters attending.

Still, the confabs aren’t going to immediately disappear because of a downturn. Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Michael Barker says his company is pursuing the same strategy for Sundance, bringing the same people, “the way we did the last few years, to find the jewel under a rock.”

Ben Fritz, Anne Thompson, Michael Schneider, Ed Meza and Michael Jones contributed to this report.

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