By  on January 17, 2002

PARK CITY, Utah -- The Sundance Film Festival's mission is to promote independent cinema -- and that's why megabrands want a piece of it.

With 77 official sponsors ponying up to $250,000 each and hundreds more tagalongs donating free products to the actors who made the grueling trek to snow-covered Utah this week, it's no surprise that the films are being overshadowed by the all-powerful marketing machines. Fashion and beauty brands are increasingly flexing their presence in what began 20 years ago as a rather grungy, unglamorous event in a small mountain town. In most cases, stars are being courted more enthusiastically by the likes of Clinique, Revlon, MAC, Diesel, Reebok, Guess, Ray Ban and other household brands than by the movie studios.

"The fashion presence started about four years ago," said Angela Matusik, features editor for In Style, who has come to Park City for six years. "Gap started giving volunteers special parkas and we always used to covet them."

Parkas make sense. But what about diamonds? This year, European jeweler H. Stern co-sponsored William Morris's annual bash along with Diesel Jeans and Details Magazine. Mariah Carey, Patricia Arquette and Christina Ricci were given trendy -- and pricey -- baubles created especially for the event. H. Stern's marketing director Andrea Hansen even made house calls to provide them with pieces for future public appearances.

"I just left Zooey Deschanel, and I'm parking to go meet someone else," she said breathlessly into her cell phone on Tuesday. Hansen said that since she doesn't have a retail outlet in Los Angeles, she depends on opportunities like Sundance to meet celebrities. "I am gifting some of the celebrities after they wear something. When you think about how much they do for me, it's not a lot," she said.

How much, exactly, is "not a lot?"

"Some of the pieces we gift are upward of $10,000," Hansen revealed. "But we have things for $1,000."

Diesel, which also sponsors Sundance's Documentary Film competition, shelled out "a couple hundred thousand dollars," according to ceo Andreas Kurz. "For us, it's worth it because Diesel and Sundance share an independent approach to creativity."For Carol Goll, brand manager for Mercedes Benz, which has donated $250,000 for the past 12 years to be a presenting sponsor of the festival, the idea is not so much to give away her product as it is to support the films and, of course, secure product placement. Mercedes' ML SUV appears in two of this year's films, "The Man from Elysian Fields," starring Andy Garcia and Mick Jagger, and "One Hour Photo," with Robin Williams. Goll said that every year at the festival the automaker inks several movie deals. This year, she created a celebrity test-drive program so actors like Benicio Del Toro and Matthew McConaughey can sample the new G class SUV, which went on sale last month.

Another automaker, Chrysler, while not the official car of Sundance, is hosting the Chrysler Lodge, a private home transformed into a multimedia spa and entertainment venue with MAC, Vidal Sassoon and the film company Hypnotic. Guests can check out the new concept cars, go upstairs for a hot stone massage by spa guru Ole Henrikson, and, if their timing is right, return downstairs for a 45-person sit-down dinner, a stand-up performance by John Leguizamo, a concert by Alanis Morissette, or some such exclusive nightly event.

But Lara Shriftman, who pioneered the house-as-retreat-and-party venue two years ago with Hugo Boss, thinks the concept is over, especially because so many companies have started copying it. "When we started, there were no sponsors here outside of the festival sponsors," she said. "We had been coming to Sundance for years and there was nowhere to get your hair and makeup done and to get cool clothes. Also, all the parties were in crowded bars. We wanted to stand out."

The result was the Hugo House, a redecorated mansion with a Red Bull-stocked fridge, a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf bar, and nightly parties deejayed by Samantha Ronson. "I actually think the trend is going back to doing parties at bars and making things more low-key. Too many people are trying to use Sundance to market products and I think actors are getting sick of it." Instead of throwing a party, she and client Clinique went on house calls to a handful of actresses, including Robin Tunney, Bai Ling and Anna Faris.Laurie Ziegler, whose company LZ Marketing and Promotions, created the gift bags for Sunday's Creative Coalition/ICM party, also stressed the importance of making a personal connection. "Not only did I make sure the gift bag was handed to every guest at the end of the party, I delivered them to people who couldn't make it," said Ziegler.

In Style's Matusik summed up her experience. "There's nothing wrong with making some money and doing business," she said. "But I'm looking forward to leaving."

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