For Sundance, swag becomes a drag

Festival wants to reduce guerilla marketing

PARK CITY, Utah — How bad has swag culture become at the Sundance Film Festival? Enough for the organization to consider creating “disincentives” for the companies that participate in it. Toronto Film Festival brass came to town earlier this week to meet with Sundance execs about what new methods the two events can use against ambush marketers.

They’re seeking solutions that are firmer than the “Focus on Film” buttons Sundance handed out this year, but kinder than a blacklist. But finding that middle ground may prove difficult.

This year, Sundance execs did what they could, requiring official sponsors to pledge that they would not set up gift suites.

Fest is also looking into ways to dissuade the local businesses that lease space to these companies.

Over the last seven years or so, big-ticket swag tents have morphed from amusing festival sideline to corporate Mardi Gras, overwhelming any impression of Park City as a movie-loving ski town.

However, ambush marketing now worries Sundance for an even more compelling reason — money.

Festival relies heavily on a small group of corporate sponsorships for its programming and other activities. This year, the 25 sponsors include Volkswagen, Turning Leaf, American Express and Ray-Ban.

The assault of logos and products in Park City mean even savvy consumers are having a hard time telling the difference between those affiliated with Sundance and those who aren’t.

The long lines outside the Heineken Lounge must certainly displease the fest’s exclusive beer-category sponsor, Stella Artois. And the Premiere Lounge — which hosted at least one party every night at the Riverhorse restaurant — must be an annoyance to official magazine sponsor Entertainment Weekly.

Yahoo!, Phillips electronics and many others also fall unto the category of ambush marketers.

It’s not that the ambush marketers are irresponsible; in another time and place, they might even be sponsors themselves.

But the way fest organizers see it, their attempts to piggyback on the festival — and to target the celebs who come to party in Park City — could dilute the value of the official sponsorships and even scare them off.

“We’d prefer these sponsors realize on their own that they shouldn’t be here,” said Elizabeth Daly, Sundance director of strategic marketing.

However, with Sundance now perceived as a powerful marketing platform for luxury brands, that’s more than unlikely.

So fest execs have set about trying to make people see it their way.

The most apparent tactic is the “Focus on Film” campaign buttons handed out at official Sundance sites in hopes of reminding people to favor screenings over swag huts.

Fest is also trying to convince companies that ambush marketing is ineffective. “What we want to do is show them it’s tacky,” Daly said. “Celebrities are increasingly likely to use their power for good in a tough time in this country.”

However, when Tara Reid is the festival’s most ubiquitous attendee, such well-meaning efforts appear a little like using a bottle of Pellegrino (not a sponsor) to put out a raging house fire.

Making matters trickier: The festival also wants to increase its ties outside the film world, especially in the music and art space. (One of its big initiatives this year is New Frontier, a combo film and art program).

“The more you open up the festival to other disciplines, the more you increase the possibilities of guerrilla marketing,” said one vet of the film-festival world. “It’s not just because of the celebrities.”

And the reality is a complicated co-existence in which the long lines and thick-necked bouncers could belong to Delta Sky Lodge (an official sponsor) or the “unofficial” Hollywood Life House.

“Brand promotion is always a fine line,” said one fest veteran. “You start touting one, you’re sending out an open invitation to all the others.”