PARK CITY, Utah -- The frenzied pursuit of swag was peaking on Saturday afternoon inside T-Mobile's 1,500-square-foot Boost Mobile Lounge, the glitziest of the gifting suites at the Sundance Film Festival. The place heaved with celebrities of all stripes -- from Oscar-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden to rapper Chamillionaire -- there to gather up free jewelry, high-end handbags and $25,000 diamond-encrusted iPod cases attached to gold necklaces, all with the understanding that their acceptance was an implicit product endorsement.
This annual bacchanal of consumption -- known in marketing circles as "Brand-dance" -- has become so much a part of the festival that people often attend just to collect free stuff -- without ever seeing a single film. Until recently, festival organizers were stoic about the whole phenomenon, insisting that the art couldn't be compromised by a few dozen aggressive corporations. But the number of gifting suites continues to multiply -- one figure suggests 120 permits were granted by Park City to companies sponsoring lounges this year compared with just 70 last year. And the conflict between philosophies of the festival and the interlopers on Main Street -- one charitable, one profit-driven -- grows increasingly evident.
The turning point came in 2006, when the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit that operates the festival, sent threatening "trademark infringement and/or implied association" letters to the owners of the Village at the Lift (known this year as the Lift), the largest gifting venue on Main Street, a shopping center with a cafe, a spa and several boutiques. That same year, Robert Redford himself referenced the gifting phenomenon in his opening remarks, suggesting the swag-a-thon had "blurred what we are doing" as people arrived with "agendas that were not the same as ours."
The festival in 2006 also launched what is now an ongoing "Focus on Film" campaign -- a salvo fired at the publicity-starved companies that lure celebrities and media with an avalanche of products.
Clearly, none of that was effective in quelling enthusiasm for the giveaway lounges this year. And Michael Baruch, CEO of Fred Segal Beauty and co-owner with Jeffrey Best of the Lift, sounds defiant about the whole swag-a-thon.
"You have an elusive and captive audience for 10 days and they are looking for things to do and there's a great chance to reach them and companies are not going to be kept from that opportunity," he said. "We'll continue to suggest to the festival that they find a way to work with groups like us, rather than fight us, because we're not going away."
Four years ago, then Sundance spokeswoman Elizabeth Daly insisted festival-goers weren't overwhelmed by swag, citing an institute survey that showed 80% of them could name all the official sponsors. This year, however, Katie Kennedy, the festival's associate director of corporate development, readily acknowledged the negative impact she believes gifting has on the festival. The problem is the unofficial sponsors crowding Main Street dim the visibility of the 19 "official" sponsors -- Volkswagen and Hewlett-Packard among them -- whose fees help support the nonprofit Sundance Institute and its festival.
"It causes us problems on many levels as a charity," she said. "What they've done at Village at the Lift has been detrimental to our sponsor community. In the past, we decided to sit down with [Baruch] and possibly identify a way to work together. Nothing really came to fruition."
Naturally, the marketers and their consultants aren't immune to the negative stigma that gifting has acquired in the last few years. Some, like Silver Spoon owners Melissa Lemer and Lorena Bendinskas, who host Golden Globe and Oscar gifting lounges, have opted against going to the festival because it's too crowded. Others are keen to distance themselves from the notion of gifting. Sponsored dinner parties, for example, are now perceived among marketing consultants to be a more tasteful way to brand a product than the more in-your-face giveaways. Bragman Nyman Caferelli President Chris Robichaud, who organized the Village at the Yard, a 100,000-square-foot space on Kearns Boulevard featuring Diesel, Timberland and, yes, a lounge sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, insisted in his news release that his venue "is not about gifting."
Even Baruch stressed his efforts to create legitimate festival tie-ins between his venue sponsors and filmmakers. More notably, though, he announced his intention to end gifting at the Lift next year, an action that might actually shift the focus back to film. Granted, his bottom line comes first.
"We would love to be a part of the official Sundance program, which puts us in a better position," Baruch said. "Do we need it? No. Would it allow us to be as successful while helping the festival? Yes."