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Greed is good

January 27, 2006

SO MANY FREEBIES, SO LITTLE TIME. That could well be the unofficial slogan of Sundance, the annual advertising convention disguised as a film festival that ends this weekend. Once again, the movies have shared top billing with the corporate sponsors and the swag they give away.

Motorola has a two-story townhouse where celebrities and their hangers-on can stop by and get the latest cellphones, $300 sunglasses and enough cosmetics to last a year. The W Las Vegas, which won't open until 2009, set up a swank, 2,800-square-foot lounge featuring hordes of models and goblet-sized martinis. Volkswagen loaned free SUVs (with a driver, thank you) to so many Hollywood heavyweights that a stroll through Park City, Utah, last weekend felt like a well-dressed tractor pull. Even Frigidaire has set up shop to give away washers and dryers. With all the freebies the Hollywood elite get at film festivals and awards shows, what exactly is left for them to spend their $20-million-per-picture salaries on?

For years, critics have decried the flow of corporate cash into Sundance as antithetical to independent film. Some have taken to referring to the festival as "Brandance."

But what precisely is everyone complaining about? Do they believe that corporate marketing dilutes the quality of the films? Are they worried that profit-minded Fortune 500 companies are going to besmirch the honorable intentions of all those agents and studio heads? Please.

This year, dozens of companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on goodie bags, free drinks and parties so over the top they make a night out in Los Angeles seem tame. That's not necessarily bad. Corporate support does not mean Sundance has lost its edge. Rather, it is a sign of the festival's success.

Film festivals are by definition marketing vehicles. If Sundance organizers want to allow corporations to advertise by paying the way for actors, publicists and the nearly 40,000 visitors who descend upon the town every year in search of good and even great films, then so be it. (The Times' ethics policy, alas, forbade us from accepting any gifts.)

Unhappy festival-goers who want a truly independent festival do have other options: They can go to one that doesn't attract so many sponsors -- or start one of their own that bars sponsorship.

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