PARK CITY — The 20th annual Sundance Film Festival, which opened Thursday in Park City, has long been acknowledged as Mecca for independent filmmakers. But with more than 38,000 people flocking to see 237 features over the next 10 days, the festival has also become a marketing powerhouse.
This year, companies ranging from Microsoft to Cesar Dog Food will see their logos next to that of the 2004 Sundance Festival. They have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege.
But companies ranging from Motorola to Quiksilver will not see their logos next to the festival’s. Instead, they are putting their logos on Main Street storefronts, on luxury lodges and on celeb-ferrying automobiles. They have paid nothing for this privilege.
Fest sponsorship doesn’t come cheaply, with companies paying anywhere from $25,000 to $300,000-plus. For their money, they receive logo acknowledgment on the official program and on the trailer that runs before each film, as well as a generous allocation of tickets.
Most of all, according to Elizabeth Daly, director of corporate relations for the Sundance Institute, sponsors receive hand-in-hand cooperation with Sundance in figuring out how best to get the word out about their products.
“Each year, our goal with our sponsors is to find meaningful ways to integrate into the festival,” Daly said. “It’s not about random banners.”
She points to examples such as Hewlett-Packard creating Internet lounges where festgoers can check their email, Volkswagen providing transportation for festival VIPs, and LG providing plasma screens for digital displays of fest-oriented information.
“We’re getting more specific, and as we develop relationships (with sponsors), they become more specific as well,” Daly said. “Filmmakers understand what an official sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival means. For sponsors, there’s an access to the festival and the venues, to statistics and information. We can guarantee our sponsors visibility through people who come to Sundance.”
For many companies, that’s not enough.
‘Like a divorce’
Mercedes-Benz, Diesel and Motorola are among the past sponsors who are returning to the festival this year without the Sundance seal of approval. “It’s like a divorce,” one former sponsor said. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Complaints range from being ignored by Sundance staffers to having to sign contracts promising that the sponsor won’t cooperate with companies not affiliated with the festival.
The biggest gripe, however, is that there isn’t enough bang for the Sundance buck.
Sundance sponsorship monies are just that, which means companies expect to spend just as much again on promotional activities such as dinners, swag bags or logoed lodges that attract celebrities and filmmakers who want to get away from it all.
As a result, for some companies, Sundance becomes a simple math problem: They can pay $400,000 for the Sundance logo and a lodge, or they can pay $200,000 for just the lodge.
“The cost is lower but the impact is the same,” said a former official Sundance sponsor.
Other firms agree
Among those companies that seem to agree are PlayStation, Crown Royal, Diesel, General Motors and Philips Electronics.
“Sundance has to accept the fact that their audience is way too attractive,” said Michael Baruch, CEO of Los Angeles-based Fred Segal Beauty. “I don’t think they’re going to win in that fight.”
Baruch said he and other companies based at the Village have received “very little cooperation but not much difficulty” from Sundance this year. Fred Segal will pick up spa-craving stars with GM cars rather than the official Sundance VW, and that doesn’t make the fest happy.
However, Baruch said his conscience is clear.
“We use local staff,” he said. “We’re paying taxes and signage fees to the city and giving back to the community. And GM is going to be here whether we use them or not.”
Doug Cole, director of entertainment marketing for Hewlett-Packard, disagrees. This is HP’s second year as a Sundance presenting sponsor, and Cole said the company has already signed up for 2005.
“I think it’s an incredible value compared to other sponsorships,” he said while driving from HP headquarters in Boise, Idaho, to Park City. “It provides us unfettered access to independent filmmakers that we wouldn’t be able to have if we were guerrilla marketers.”
He estimated that HP spends about twice its sponsorship fee in order to leverage its festival presence. This includes the HP/Avid Creation Studio, a portion of the Sundance Digital Center where filmmakers can give the computer manufacturer what Cole calls “real-time feedback.”
“A 30-second TV spot can cost a half million or more,” said Cole. “I think Sundance is an outstanding value.”
Sundance may wish that non-sponsors would either join its tribe or quietly go away, but that’s unlikely. With its nightly onslaught of parties and celebrity sightings, the festival has become a prime opportunity to practice the kind of soft-sell marketing that advertisers want.
“Advertisers are finding television ads expensive and ineffective,” said trend consultant Faith Popcorn, whose BrainReserve consults for companies ranging from Gillette to Johnson & Johnson. “Now they want the brand to appear without having been put there or paid for. It’s the furthest thing from product placement; it’s woven through the DNA of the culture. Sundance is very glamorous and artsy, and brands have an opportunity to present themselves in more subtle ways.”
In fact, Baruch said that for his taste, even being part of an official Sundance sponsorship is too much of a hard sell.
“It’s not attractive,” he said. “It’s way too commercial for Fred Segal. I don’t want to commercialize myself that way. A Sundance sponsorship makes it look too big. I want to be the team behind the stage. That’s the message I want to send.”