Sundance: Swag Storms Main Street as Branding Reaches Pre-Recession Heights

Elizabeth Banks Sundance - P - 2014
Sharon Swart

“This year is the best since the recession,” says event maestro Jeffrey Best of the influx of corporate sponsorships and gifting suites at the festival.

PARK CITY, Utah — A decade after the dot-com boom years created an influx of corporate sponsorship, brands are back in a big way at the Sundance Film Festival.

This year’s marketing presence recalls the early 2000s, when sponsored houses and swag suites were at their apex, but with a higher level of sophistication. After a dip in 2008 and 2009, when the recession caused gift lounges and branded event spaces to all but leave town, venue organizers and marketers say brand money is flowing again.

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“This year is the best since the recession,” says event maestro Jeffrey Best, who runs the Village at the Lift complex at the base of Main Street. Each year, he says he needs to raise $1 million to run the facility during the festival. “In those tougher years, I had to fund the deficiency myself.” This year, that nut is well covered.

“The economy is coming back,” explains Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam. She says festival sponsorship is at healthy levels, but also that “pirate marketing is back in full force.” Though Putnam adds that it’s a bit more difficult for these ambush marketers (or non-official Sundance sponsors) to set up shop these days. “The city has used their statutes to protect some of the rights our sponsors have.” The result is diminished signage and more discrete storefronts for non-Sundance supporters.

Official fest sponsors, meanwhile, can’t be missed on Main Street. Presenting sponsor Chase Sapphire Preferred wrapped an entire building with its signature cobalt blue banners. Fellow presenting sponsors HP and Sundance Channel also had their logos out front and center on their Main Street venues, while another presenting sponsor, Acura, created an entire pavilion on the corner of Main and Heber. Three shiny black Acura vehicles dominate the space, flanked by glass prisms that flash Sundance film-related hashtag trends in real time. Adjacent Acura-emblazoned lounges, open to the public, offer free Wi-Fi, drinks and snacks. As part of the Acura brand blitz, KCRW DJ Jason Bentley played at sundown Friday from Zoom restaurant’s balcony, hovering above the cars.

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Down the street, brand behemoth Village at the Lift is up and running again, with various companies represented in its spaces. Belgian beermaker Stella Artois is back for a second year at the venue, while it’s their 11th year as an official Sundance sponsor. “We love what Sundance stands for— the spirit of independence and craftsmanship,” says Stella’s U.S. brand manager Chris Hanson.

Hanson says Stella always aspires to return to the fest with something new. This year the company created a comfy “winter orchard” lounge, on the street level below the lift, to launch its new cider Stella Artois Cidre. Elizabeth Banks -- who has the film Little Accidents showing at the festival -- appeared in the lounge to help Stella toast Cidre on Friday afternoon. “I figured you’re going to do something when you come up here anyway, so why not? And I’m not leaving here with bags of things,” Banks tells THR, while gamely sipping the new beverage.

Celebrities and their minders have become much more savvy about how to associate with brands at the festival. Over the years, hoards of actors (and their reps) were lured into gift lounges with promises of goodie bags full of expensive clothing and electronics — in return for posing with a product. “You used to have people sticking a beef-jerky or a mitten into a photo with a celebrity,” says one publicist.

“The days of Sundance being a celebrity petting zoo are thankfully behind us,” Best adds.

Still, a stroll up Main Street reveals various swag lounges filled with eager freebie chasers. And celebs continue to pop into these lounges as well. Actors Emile Hirsch and Joe Manganiello were treated to DJI Phantom 2 aerial drone cameras at Kari Feinstein’s Sundance Style Lounge. Perhaps it’s just the gadget for turning the cameras on snooping paparazzi?

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At the top of Main Street, the Talent Resources suite was overrun Friday with people trying to get in on Dove hairstyling services, men's shaves, healthy veggie snacks, Sean John jackets, CAT boots and Exofficio travel undies. A group of UC Berkeley grads (some of whom were ex-CAA interns) took a peek, but weren’t able to get in. They settled for an avocado cookie, courtesy of Avocados from Mexico, on their way out.

Pop-up restaurants are all over Main, too, including STK and L.A.‘s Eveleigh and Animal.

And in the space where CAA had its raunchy bash last year, there’s now an Eddie Bauer suite, offering various mountain-themed attractions, including a rock-climbing wall. Wayne Newton was spotted inside Friday, as various people in his entourage tried on down jackets. It’s Bauer’s first year at the festival, and reps said they’d like to come back in a bigger way next year and perhaps even become official Sundance sponsors. “It’s a natural fit for the brand,” says Bauer’s brand and PR manager Molly McWhinnie.

In what might have been a way to usher in this renewed brand era, Sundance founder Robert Redford admitted at the opening press conference Thursday that his independent film festival is actually quite “dependent” on the generosity of sponsors. As he described how, a few years back, the festival began showcasing filmmaking hardware (Sony’s in particular) at a venue on Main Street, he mistakenly, but perhaps aptly, called it “Wall Street.”