Dialogue: Brand man reshapes Sundance net

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As executive vp marketing, branded entertainment and sponsorship, Kirk Iwanowski orchestrated the Sundance Channel's first on-air sponsorship deals (with Smith Barney and Lexus, announced last week) and its decision to shift from a premium pay channel to a branded entertainment and sponsorship-supported network. He recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter marketing reporter Gail Schiller about the changes.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why did Sundance Channel go to a sponsorship-supported model?

Kirk Iwanowski: Sundance Channel has a long history of establishing off-air partnerships with like-minded consumer brands. We've co-produced acoustical concert albums with Starbucks (before there was a Hear Music); we've launched theatrical film series with the support of Kenneth Cole, Volkswagen and Coca-Cola; we've housed a Sundance Channel Recommends section in thousands of Blockbuster retail locations nationwide ... the list goes on. Our foray into on-air sponsorship and branded entertainment is simply the natural evolution of the channel.

THR: Is there any concern that the Sundance Channel's reputation as a commercial-free destination for independent viewers could be compromised by the branded entertainment and sponsorship deals you're doing?

Iwanowski: We remain commercial free. Aside from program promotion, all feature-length programming will remain uninterrupted. The channel will not feature any (30- or 60-second spots); any commercial messaging on the network will be created by the network in partnership with the given brand and will be tied directly to content. What we offer is the ability to produce custom interstitials, vignettes, longform original series, branded destinations, custom film fests and the like. We're not looking to do hundreds of deals. The brands we work with share a similar sensibility -- in addition to demo and psycho-graphic targets -- and are interested in creating large-scale, content-based marketing platforms. We don't sell ad schedules. We're very protective of our air; anything we do with a brand is intended to enhance the viewing experience. The goal is to create a win-win for brand, channel and audience.

THR: Why in Sundance Channel's first on-air sponsorship deals did you choose Lexus and Smith Barney as co-presenting sponsors of "The Green," the network's environmental programming block that launches in April?

Iwanowski: Both brands have made significant investments in becoming environmentally sustainable or helping to lead the charge on that front. Lexus is at the forefront of hybrid technology development and embraces the "hybrid living" concept in its entirety. As part of its "Working Wealth" campaign, Smith Barney is dedicated to showcasing entrepreneurs and businesses that are changing the way they do business to positively impact both the environment and the bottom line. Lexus and Smith Barney have unparalleled credibility in this space.

THR: What other branded entertainment deals is Sundance Channel working on?

Iwanowski: We recently announced two separate deals. The first is a collaboration with Hewlett-Packard on the development of "Snapshot Diaries" -- eight video diaries created by a diverse range of artists chronicling their experience at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Featured artists include director Gregg Araki, Universal recording artist Eliot Morris and the cast of "Waitress" (Keri Russell, Cheryl Hines). The diaries are shot using HP digital cameras and notebook PCs, which are also featured in the "diaries" themselves. The HP Snapshot Diaries will run on Sundance Channel, as well as SundanceChannel.com, HP.com and YouTube. In addition, we've just greenlit the third season of "Iconoclasts" with co-production partner Grey Goose Entertainment and in association with the Conde Nast Media Group.

THR: Are you planning to create original programming for brands that are working with the Sundance Channel?

Iwanowski: Absolutely, that's the goal. Our model is based on the creation of custom content -- short or longform -- with brands that can be exploited cross platform through linear, online, VOD or EST (electronic sell-through).

THR: What role do you see brands playing in the future of entertainment? Do you think advertisers will continue to play an even bigger role in sponsoring and producing entertainment?

Iwanowski: No question. That said, the success of brand integration or association will come down to execution. The relationship between Madison Avenue agencies, brands and content creators and distributors must become increasingly symbiotic. At the end of the day, if the content isn't stellar, the brand isn't going to resonate or connect with the desired audience.
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