Economy shouldn't dampen Sundance

Could take a year for economy to catch up with fest

The media and entertainment world might look like a giant pink-slip party, but don't expect gloom at the annual soiree in the snow that is the Sundance Film Festival.

In fact, those anticipating a toned-down, corporate-free event might be in for a surprise in Utah. Insiders, marketers and fest organizers suggest that the mix of industry, filmmakers and even corporate hangers-on -- and the general circus that defines the festival's opening weekend -- will be very much in evidence.

Part of that is timing. Much like the indie business it provides a platform to, it could take a year or even longer for the effects of the outside world to catch up with the festival. Although some shopkeepers reported that space hadn't been rented as of late October, many contracts had to be signed in the late summer and early fall, meaning that entities made their plans before the economy began its fourth-quarter swoon.

And while some official sponsors have been more rigorous about costs, many, such as Stella Artois and Delta, are planning on their usual presence. And even as some sponsors re-evaluate, new ones have been brought on. Volkswagen, for instance, ended its affiliation, but Honda is replacing it.

Diminished corporate events also could be offset by celebrations thrown by the festival, including its first-ever fundraiser, which will take place Jan. 19. "The proof will be when we get there," festival exec Emily Laskin said. "But right now we're feeling pretty good."

Up and down Main Street, you can still expect a litany of brand-driven events. And many of those who drive and fly in are either students or indie filmmakers -- not exactly a group flush with millions even when hedge funds were flourishing,

The festival did score a major blow in its battle against ambush marketing when it landed a deal with event planner Jeffrey Best to take over the Village at the Lift, a key venue. In the past, Best ran a series of gifting suites that attracted celebrities and high-end brands -- and irked festival organizers -- but this year the space will be devoted to official festival functions.

But even ambush marketers might still be there in some numbers, particularly because of the presence of stars in many films (which in many cases were funded by hedge-fund money from the past few years). And where there are stars, there are gifting suites.

One of the areas that will see minimal impact: industry parties.

After some debate, WMA decided to maintain its tradition of the late-night party at the Shop, an annual bash under a big tent. The agency debated the move but ultimately decided that it wanted to support clients and their films. Cinetic Media's smaller but industry-heavy event that same night also is scheduled to go on as planned.

But Entertainment Weekly -- a victim like so many of editorial retrenchment this year -- will not be throwing its splashy weekend fete.

Because of the number of films, the buying and selling community should bring a sizable turnout. Several companies have been drastically cut since last year, but expect a presence from specialty divisions such as Fox Searchlight, Focus, Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics.

Some agencies are saying there may be marginal cutbacks, and a number of boutique publicists have cut back. Jeff Hill's International House of Publicity, a mainstay, has decided not to come this year; with the festival still pricey, he says he made a cost-benefit decision that it wasn't worth the expense.

One wild card is the threats to boycott the festival because some of the venues are owned by figures with ties to the Mormon church, which was instrumental in the fight over Proposition 8 in California. But it remains to be seen how much traction those threats get.

In the end, some in the industry aren't so sure a diminished corporate presence is a bad thing. Said one buyer, "Maybe this will finally do what the festival's been trying to do for years -- bring the focus back on films."