The Death of Sundance's Gifting Suite: "It's Not Chic Anymore"

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Swag hags (remember Paris Hilton walking off with 30 bags?) are becoming extinct as Main Street evolves beyond its freebie-spree identity and brands find new ways of capturing "lightning in a bottle."

The red carpet at Sundance is chiller than most — that's why they call it the snow carpet — with a look as indie as the movies. It's "one of the few places you can market jeans and parkas with a celebrity angle," says Jessica Meisels, CEO of PR firm Fingerprint Communications. As a result, by the late 2000s, the festival became an over-the-top, swagadelic feeding frenzy, with gifting suites from Fred Segal to Uggs plying talent (and in recent years, digital influencers like bloggers and YouTubers) with product. In 2007, Teri Hatcher reportedly was gifted $25,000 worth of stuff and had to use a private plane to carry it all home, while in 2009, "swag hag" Paris Hilton walked off with 30 bags of loot. Marketing disillusionment set in. "One actress holding up a product, even a Sarah Jessica Parker, stopped making sense to brands," says event pro­ducer Jeffrey Best of Best Events. "They stopped getting enough return on investment after a saturation point." Adds Ashlee Margolis of brand marketing firm The A List: "It's so oversaturated, I don't bring my clients up there now. It's not chic anymore."

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With the IRS in 2006 cracking down on gifting taxes and A-listers wor­rying about compromising deals with major brands ("a big European lux­ury brand won't deal with you if you're shot holding a $200 bag," says Best), the suites began to decline, and only several still exist. Says one branding publicist: "Robert Redford stopped the surfeit of suites madness to keep the emphasis on film. They started to exer­cise more control over the brands," shooing away companies that weren't official sponsors, like Canada Goose is this year.

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Agents also began demanding fees for their clients to show up at swag suites — if such suites were declasse, at least the celebrities should be compensated. "The talent knows their brand worth now, and they want to get paid in Macs or phones or trips for going to the suites. They won't wear something with a logo — not the higher-level talent you want," says Meisels. And when Park City's "Main Street landlords found they could get $200,000 to $250,000 a week from a major media company," adds Best, brand marketing started switching to media suites like CNN and WireImage. "Instead of spending millions for ads, a company like Eddie Bauer will sponsor a media lounge with Amazon or CNN," says Chris Ryan of branding firm Oceanside Entertainment. "The media lounge is the hook to get film PR to get the cast in. That way, the brands have a guarantee stars will wear [a product] and they'll get their all-important photo."

Those photos don't have an expiration date, says Kari Feinstein, head of the biggest surviving Main Street gifting suite, Kari Feinstein's Sundance Style Lounge, with Ellen Page and Chloe Sevigny expected to drop by this year: "Press coverage of Sundance is massive in comparison to most festivals, almost comparable to the Academy Awards." (Feinstein gets paid $20,000 to $40,000 per brand to be included in the suite, and A-listers can receive more than $10,000 in gifts, including vacations.) NPD Group chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen adds, "Brands getting celebrities photographed is still lightning in a bottle." Sundance also is an opportunity to keep up key bonds. "If you're going to have real relationships with stars," says Meisels, "you need to work with them year-round."

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No wonder the most desirable actresses have been "seeded" beforehand, with gifts and loans from such fashion brands as MaxMara, Rag & Bone, Tory Burch, Escada and Chanel ski apparel and sportswear brands Merrell, Uggs and Sorel. "Brands definitely love to loan for Sundance," says stylist Ilaria Urbinati, who dresses Shailene Woodley. Penny Lovell, who works with Anne Hathaway, says Sundance "is a great opportunity for clients to expand on their streetwear look. Fans never see them in that approachable context. It's refreshing to leave the heels behind."

Paris Hilton posed with a bag of swag at Sundance in 2009. Photo: Getty Images

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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