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PARK CITY ’08 | Swagdance, Brand Dance, and the Struggle to Focus on Film

PARK CITY '08 | Swagdance, Brand Dance, and the Struggle to Focus on Film

“Sundance is weird,” Britney Spears infamously quipped five years ago in Park City, quoted by the New York Post‘s Page Six. “The movies are weird – you actually have to think about them when you watch them.” The most surprising part of that moment was the fact that the tabloid and Spears were actually in Park City to cross paths and create such a perfect illustration of the Sundance Film Festival. Recent events will prevent Britney from a trip to Park City this year, but Paris Hilton will again be in town for the festival, likely trailed by a host of paparazzi and gossip hounds. Like Paris, many of the famous festival crashers who travel to Park City without a film in the festival won’t be confronted with Britney’s dilemma of making sense of the movies, since they’ll likely spend most of their time lounging at sponsored suites and swag shopping at gifting houses, constantly captured by one of the many WireImage photographers. A few many even sneak into indieWIRE‘s iPOP section now and again.

Since the turn of this new century, much to the dismay of festival organizers, sanctioned and guerrilla marketers alike have spent millions trying to capture the attention of the Sundance Film Festival’s coveted audience of celebrities, industry-types, filmmakers, journalists, and socialites. “It’s the year of Swag,” proclaimed Slamdance programmer Alex Nohe, in an indieWIRE article back in 2001, “It’s really come into its own. The films are secondary.” That year Swagdance (as we called it), featured a turning point moment when Hugo Boss distributed $1,300 puffy coats to select attendees. Rival apparel companies, electronics brands, and other high-end labels have been upping the ante ever since.

This year at Brand-Dance, as we now label the collective swirl of parties, gifting suites and sponsor events that run primarily during the first five days of Sundance, it seems as though there is more happening outside the movie theaters than ever before.

Officially, Sundance attendees will encounter Stella Artois beer, 360 Vodka and Turning Leaf wines at sponsored festival events, and see such brand names as Entertainment Weekly, Volkswagen, HO and Adobe — all presenting sponsors of the event. But, visitors won’t have to stray far before they run across rebel marketers at Motorola’s Late Night Lounge, the In Touch Magazine cafe, a Kenneth Cole Reaction or Fuse lounge, or a swag house from Hollywood Life, among numerous others.

Long gone are the days when most fesitval-goers gathered at a nightly official Sundance party and also nearly extinct are the standalone film parties that used to inhabit restaurants and other venues in Park City. indieWIRE’s invitations to some 75 film related and renegade gatherings over the next few days finds most of them taking place at a venue that has been set up by a name brand, such as the Heineken Green Room, the Turning Leaf Lounge, the Hollywood Life House and the Queer Lounge, or at dinners from ChefDance or Bon Appetit.

“With the increased popularity of independent film and the Sundance Film Festival, there has been an influx of companies traveling to Park City to piggy-back on the Festival experience with gifting suites, lounges and non-film-oriented events,” noted the festival in a press release touting its own official sponsors. “Sundance Institute does not support these endeavors because they negatively impact the public’s perception, contribute to an increase in operational costs in Park City, and distract from the Festival’s focus: the films, filmmakers, and the official sponsor community that make the Sundance Film Festival a reality.”

A journalist checks in at the press office on Wednesday at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

To stem the media’s seemingly insatiable fixation on the influx of celebrities with no apparent connection whatsoever to the festival itself, last year Sundance organizers distributed large round, brightly colored buttons with the motto, “Focus on Film.” “Visibly wearing this button during the 2007 Sundance Film Festival means that,” in the words of the declaration postcard attached to the buttons, “…My idea of ‘celebrity’ is the filmmaker who directed my favorite film at the Festival.” This year organizers are distributing smaller, more subtle buttons with the same message.

Sundance Institute head Robert Redford may just answer the annual round of questions about the star-driven side of the festival during a press conference on Thursday afternoon. And, he will seek to steer the media to focus on festival’s movies, likely declaring some variation on his annual mantra that the festival is first and foremost “for the filmmakers.” A fitting reminder. No doubt, the truly independent, sometimes challenging, and hopefully unique films that frequently make Sundance stand out — despite the influx of socialites, marketers and paparazzi — remain a hallmark of this annual festival. Yet, as it has for nearly a decade now, organizers are walking a tight rope trying to manage a roster of films that include numerous stars who arrive in Park City to be pampered.

“For better or for worse, independent cinema has become co-opted by Hollywood,” Redford recently told the local Deseret News. “More big-name stars are appearing in independent films, which does gives them more legitimacy, but that definitely has its negative aspects as well.”

indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.

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